Through the first five holes, the Blue Devils looked destined for another shaky opening round at the NCAA regionals.
But unlike last year, when Duke shot 33-over-par to put themselves out of contention on the first day, the Blue Devils recovered in the first round and continued their strong play for the rest of the tournament to advance to the NCAA championship after a one-year hiatus from the biggest stage in college golf.
No. 4 seed Duke finished in second place at 10-over-par in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional at the University Club, comfortably in the top-five position it needed to advance. After sitting 5-over-par through five holes Monday, the Blue Devils closed out the first round with scintillating back nines from Alexander Matlari and Alex Smalley to stand in fourth place at 3-over-par. With an even-par 288 to lead all teams Tuesday, Duke catapulted to second place, and it remained there with a 7-over-par final round to finish eight strokes behind host and then-No. 3 LSU.
Smalley and Chandler Eaton both tied for third at even-par to lead the Blue Devils.
“We have a very good team with a lot of resolve, and they stayed patient,” Duke head coach Jaime Green said. "They knew good players make things happen and they did.”
Matlari and Smalley both used birdies on holes one, three and six—the Blue Devils started the day on hole 10—to shoot 2-under-par on their back nines Monday and lead the team in scoring at 72 and 71, respectively.
On day two, freshman Chandler Eaton carded only one bogey in his round to the tune of a 3-under-par 69. After opening the tournament with bogeys on two of his first three holes and a triple bogey on his back nine, Eaton's performance Tuesday was a dramatic improvement from his 74 Monday.
"He said he just sort of let the birdies come to him. He just played to his spots and when he had a really good number and good club in his hand to attack the flag, he did, but if things were not just quite right or the way he wanted them to be, he was not hesitant to play a little more conservatively," Green said. "If you do that all day long and use not just high-level skill in terms of ball-striking and putting, but patience along with it, a lot of good things can happen.”
Eaton closed out his tournament with a 1-over-par 73 and finished tied with Smalley when his teammate carded a 2-over-par final round.
Smalley has now finished in the top 10 in four of his last five tournaments, including three top-five finishes. He entered Wednesday's final round tied for second with the top collegiate golfer in the country, No. 9 Oregon’s Wyndham Clark, who finished at 3-under-par, one stroke behind No. 2 Sam Burns from the Tigers.
"[Smalley] has played fantastic golf for a long period of time. He was a good player when he came to Duke and has gotten better and better with each passing month and tournament,” Green said. "He, like his teammates, had a look in his eye that he was going to get something done this week and you can tell a little from his facial expression that he knew it was serious business."
Matlari, after posting an even-par 72 on the first day, struggled to rounds of 79 and 75 to finish tied for 35th at 10-over-par. Luckily for Duke, however, Matt Oshrine and Jake Shuman came through in the second round to ensure that the team score remained low. Following a 77 Monday, Oshrine bounced back to shoot a 2-over-par 74 Tuesday to match Shuman, who sandwiched his middle round with scores of 74 and 79.
Oshrine finished tied for 24th at 8-over-par, and Shuman finished last among the Blue Devils in 39th place at 11-over-par.
Having passed the regionals test, Duke will head to Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., to compete for the NCAA championship May 26-31. In 2015, the Blue Devils tied for 24th at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
The 30 qualifying teams from the six regionals will play three days of stroke play before the field gets cut down to 15 teams. The 15 teams will then play another 18 holes to determine the seeding for an eight-team match play bracket that will ultimately decide the national champion.
“Our hopes are to compete for the national championship. That is why we go. Our guys are not just satisfied to show up,” Green said. "They did a terrific job to be so competitive as quickly as they did with the very strong field. The only other thing we are going to try to do to get in preparation for this golf course is to get out early. Maybe a day or two days earlier than our practice round just to play a little bit more on northern-style grasses."