For a moment, it looked as if Alabama—which began the day trailing the Blue Devils by 10 strokes—was about to turn Duke’s terrific start to the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational into a story of disappointment.
But several Blue Devils ended their rounds with clutch performances, as the team bested the second-ranked Crimson Tide by four strokes during its final two holes to come out on top by a single shot.
In its second victory through three events this season, No. 6 Duke finished with a 31-under-par total at UNC’s Finley Golf Course, marking the 15th time it has won the Chapel Hill event. Senior Leona Maguire also took home some individual hardware during the 54-hole tournament held Friday through Sunday, posting a tournament-record 12-under-par total to beat South Carolina’s Ainhoa Olarra by one stroke.
“I saw so much poise in the last day of this tournament,” Blue Devil head coach Dan Brooks said. “I was really, really happy with what I was seeing. When you’re out there, you can sense when the team has moved up on you...They weren’t under any false pretenses. They knew that it was close.”
Duke looked to be in a comfortable position for a victory before the start of Sunday’s round, holding a 10-stroke cushion against Alabama after shooting 17-under-par—the second-lowest round in school history—in round two Saturday. But the Crimson Tide responded by charging out of the gates Sunday, carding just one bogey as a team during their first nine holes compared to 10 birdies, which cut the Blue Devils’ lead to four with all players through seven holes.
The scales continued to tip in Alabama’s favor late into the round, as Kristen Gillman, Lauren Stephenson and Cheyenne Knight piled on the birdies and were well on their way to carding rounds in the mid 60’s. Before long, Duke’s lead had vanished, and it found itself down by one with four holes remaining.
Then, freshman Miranda Wang—who had just three birdies in her previous 30 holes when she teed off on the par-5 17th—dropped birdies on three of her final four holes of the shotgun-start event, finishing on the par-4 second hole with a 2-under-par round of 70.
At about the same time, Virginia Elena Carta heated up late in her round at the perfect moment. The junior and former individual national champion birdied both the 17th and 18th holes to turn in a 69 on the par-72 course, helping her team move back ahead of Alabama while placing ninth individually, her best result of the season.
Along with Wang’s late birdies, Carta’s surge was enough for the team to hoist another trophy just down Tobacco Road.
“I was walking with [Virginia] the last two holes—she put some of the best swings I’ve ever seen her take on the shots coming in on her last two holes,” Brooks said. “You can bet she knew that we were close and yet she puts some great, rhythmic swings on the shots, so I was very impressed by that.”
But Carta’s and Wang’s late birdies would have meant nothing without solid play from their teammates throughout the weekend. Maguire opened the event with a 3-under-par 69 on the 6,379-yard track, then followed it with a bogey-free 66 during Saturday’s round before squeezing out a win with another 69 Sunday despite heavy pressure from several players—seven competitors finished within three strokes of Maguire.
“I’m really proud of both the team and my individual performance this week,” Maguire told GoDuke.com. “We played some true Duke golf this weekend against a very high-quality field. Everyone really dug deep coming down the stretch to hold off Alabama, and it gives us great confidence leading into our final event of the fall.”
When Wang had her off day Saturday with a 75, freshman Jaravee Boonchant stepped up to contribute to the 17-under-par team total, posting five birdies and just one bogey to shoot 68. The Bangkok native opened with a round of 72 Friday and had a quiet scorecard Sunday that included 15 pars, two birdies and one bogey to yield a 71 and finish in a tie for 13th. Boonchant has now finished in the top-15 in each of her first three college starts.
Ana Belac also had her best round of the weekend Saturday, rolling in a 10-footer for birdie on the 2nd hole and tapping-in birdies on holes 11 and 17 in a round of 69. The sophomore opened with a round of 73 and closed with a 71, but made a crucial birdie on the par-4 18th hole Sunday to help put her team in the winner’s circle.
“You learn a lot when there’s situations like this, when you find out what they’re capable of,” Brooks said. “I was just extremely pleased with what I saw this weekend.”
The Blue Devils will tee up next Oct. 27-29 in Wilmington, N.C., for the Landfall Tradition, which they won by 11 strokes during their last trip there in 2015.