Twelve inches and one stroke have been all that have kept the Blue Devils from national championship appearances the last two years.
Now, Duke is desperate for a chance at redemption.
In 2015, the Blue Devils fell 3-2 to Baylor in the national semifinals after Lisa Maguire had a chance to win the decisive match in extra holes, but hit an errant tee shot and fell on the sixth playoff hole by a stroke. Last year in the semis, her twin sister and the world’s No. 1 amateur Leona Maguire had a chance against Stanford to send the decisive match to a playoff while battling vertigo, but left her putt one foot right of the hole.
No. 7 Duke enters this weekend’s NCAA championship at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., looking for its seventh national championship and first since 2014. After 54 holes of stroke play, the top 15 teams and nine individuals will play 18 more holes to decide the individual champion. From there, the top eight teams will advance to a single-elimination match-play tournament May 23-24.
The ACC champion Blue Devils are riding high after finishing second in the Albuquerque Regional, just seven strokes behind No. 3 Stanford, but will need something more to earn their second championship in four years.
“You just fight a little harder, even if you thought you were fighting as hard as you could those times,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said. “There could be a little more grit there. That’s what I expect. We’re not taking anything for granted.”
The Blue Devils could not have entered golf’s biggest stage at a better time—according to Brooks, they are playing their best golf of the season. Despite finishing a merely passable 9-over-par in their first round in the regional, they surged with two even-par rounds in windy conditions to close the tournament and climb up the leaderboard.
It was one of the best top-to-bottom performances of the year, with freshman Ana Belac earning her career's top-five finish, Leona Maguire tying for sixth and reigning national champion Virginia Elena Carta tying for 18th, a team effort that Brooks certainly appreciated.
“The chemistry we have is really good,” Brooks said. “It isn’t required in golf because it’s a pretty individual thing, but when you have it, it can be a real positive, and we’ve got it. We had great chemistry at regionals. It’s something that’s grown.”
After a disappointing fall, Belac’s spring surge on the back of a swing change has made the Blue Devils' once top-heavy lineup deeper.
The former No. 1 Slovenian junior golfer had looked like a shell of her former self this spring, failing to strike the ball with authority and finishing tied for 47th and tied for 71st in her first two collegiate tournaments. She was hitting the ball more than a club shorter than she is now, Brooks said.
To rehabilitate her game, she first made a grip adjustment and later changed how she moved to the golf ball, Brooks said. After fixing her swing and path to impact, Brooks said she has been making contact better than ever.
“If you’re not feeling impact, it’s really frustrating to play this game,” Brooks said. “She was able to get that back.”
The results have been evident—Belac finished in the top-15 in all but one tournament this spring.
Paired with Carta and Leona Maguire—the golfer with the lowest single-season scoring average in NCAA history—Belac and Duke enter the championship with a fearsome trio atop the lineup.
Carta has rebounded from early inconsistency and dental procedures to earn two top-seven finishes in her last five tournaments, including a second-place finish at the LSU Tiger Golf Classic March 24-26. She also earned two top-20 finishes in the ACC championship and in regional play.
The Udine, Italy, native is certainly no stranger to the spotlight after her late surge last season culminated in the largest individual margin of victory in NCAA championship history.
Every Blue Devil in the lineup but Belac has played in the semifinals or better, experience they will need to lean on against the nation’s best squads.
Senior Sandy Choi rose to the challenge as a freshman during Duke's 2014 NCAA championship run, earning All-NCAA East Regional honors and finishing tied for 23rd in the championship.
Before falling on the final playoff hole two years ago, Lisa Maguire also showed some grit, winning the last two holes to send the match beyond regulation.
The competition will certainly be stiff—all of the nation’s top-10 teams but No. 9 Georgia and No. 4 UCLA qualified for the finals. Surging No. 1 Arizona State blew away the competition by 21 strokes after a 16-under-par final round at the Lubbock, Texas, regional and No. 2 Alabama won its regional by 14 strokes.
But having played on a similar surface in last week’s regional, the Blue Devils feel up to the task.
“We’re going to be ready for anything,” Brooks said. “We’re on northern grass, which we actually had in Albuquerque because it’s so high, a mile high in the air. And we’ve been practicing at our facility, which has had some beautiful rye grass and beautiful bent grass greens for all of our training going into this, so we feel like we have experience with the conditions we’re going to run into this week.”