Despite suffering through a tough winter, the Blue Devils showed little rust when they returned to the course.
No. 3 Duke finished second at the Northrop Grumman Challenge at Palos Verdes, Calif. in its first spring tournament. Because of its daunting elevation changes, the Palos Verdes Golf Club tested the nation’s best during the 54-hole tournament and No. 2 Southern California won the event with a score of 14-over-par.
The Blue Devils—who struggled to practice as much as they would have liked in the offseason because of weather—finished seven strokes behind the Trojans. Duke put together three consistent rounds as a team to hold its own against a field that featured seven of the nation’s top eight teams.
“I think we played well,” head coach Dan Brooks said. “We’re always a little limited in the winter time with our preparation for this tournament—it’s a really strong field for this early in the spring. On top of it, we had a little bit worse winter than normal. I’m pretty pleased with what we did.”
Freshman Yu Liu picked up right where she left off in the fall season, opening with a three-under-par 68 to finish tied for third after 18 holes.
The Beijing native stayed in the top-five throughout the tournament, carding rounds of three-over-par 74 and two-over-par 73 for her final two rounds to finish tied for third at two-over-par. Liu has yet to finish outside the top 10 as a Blue Devil.
“She just went up against the best and finished third—that says an awful lot about a freshman,” Brooks said. “She’s just got a lot of physical talent. She’s invested herself in the game for a long time, she hits it really hard and I think the main thing we’re seeing is the benefit of hard work.”
Although Duke’s standout freshman came out of the gate in a groove, the Blue Devils’ seniors struggled in the first round of their final semester. Senior Laetitia Beck opened with a six-over-par 77 and Beck’s classmate Alejandra Cangrejo opened with a five-over-par 76.
Cangrejo was unable to turn it around after a rough opening round—finishing tied for 49th at 15-over-par—but Beck showed resilience, playing her final 36 holes at two-over-par to finish at eight-over-par in a tie for 22nd.
Her bounce-back performance during the final 36 holes was crucial to give Duke’s lineup more balance because the top four scores from the five-person lineup count towards the team score.
“That shows you what Laetitia can do,” Brooks said. “I’m sure she’s disappointed with her [start], but it was a really good golf course and we’re coming out of a tough winter.”
Sophomore Celine Boutier quietly put together a very solid tournament, shooting identical rounds of one-over-par 72 the first two days before carding a three-over-par 74 in the final round.
Boutier finished tied for 12th at five-over-par and was likely more prepared for the high winds than her competitors because of her experience playing in the 2013 British Women’s Open.
In just her second start for Duke, freshman Esther Lee showed why she was such a coveted talent coming out of high school. Lee finished strong, carding a one-over-par 72 in the final round to finish tied for 22nd at eight-over-par in her home state.
“She just continues to be impressive,” Brooks said, “She has a very natural ability to hit the ball hard. She’s not physically really strong to look at, but she hits it quite hard. That helps.”
The entire field was tested by the difficult golf course and high winds. Only one player—Southern California’s Annie Park—finished the tournament under par. Park—the 2013 National Champion—finished at six-under-par and was at 11-under-par at one point during the final round.
If Park had not been so dominant, the Blue Devils might have been able to catch the Trojans late in the final round. The sophomore won by seven strokes—the same margin that Southern California won by.
“She’s a very good player,” Brooks said. “She’s somebody that thinks well on the golf course. She hits it very straight, and she’s got all the parts.”
After a successful start to the spring season, Duke will return home to face yet another winter storm. Luckily, the Blue Devils have more than three weeks to prepare for their next event—the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate in Hilton Head, S.C.
“It would be nice if we could play a tournament every week, but they’d flunk out of school and that probably wouldn’t be too good,” Brooks said. “We’re just going to do the best we can.”