Although they were playing an unfamiliar course that was not suited to their strengths, the Blue Devils persevered to qualify for the NCAA Championship.
No. 3 Duke finished tied for third at the NCAA East Regional at SouthWood Golf Club in Tallahassee, Fla. The Blue Devils finished with a three-day total of four-under-par 860—20 strokes behind Vanderbilt, the tournament champion. The Commodores used a 14-under-par final round to break away from the rest of the field and win by 14 shots.
Duke had finished in the top two in each of its last seven starts and won the ACC Championship by 27 strokes, but the Blue Devils were happy to finish tied for third in their first time playing the short 6,257-yard, par-72 layout. They also achieved their primary goal of qualifying for the NCAA Championship May 20-23.
“The first day [the golf course] was really not set up very tough and the greens were pretty rough,” head coach Dan Brooks said. “For good players, that’s a challenge. You want the golf course to be really tough and you want the greens to be smooth. [So] I thought we hung in there pretty well. It’s not like [Vanderbilt] was the only one going well under par, they were just the ones that were able to sustain it.”
Freshman Sandy Choi led the way for Duke, tying for seventh place to earn her second top-10 finish in as many tournaments. The San Diego native sandwiched a second-round 68 with a pair of 72’s to finish at four-under-par.
“[Choi] has really been playing well this spring,” Brooks said. “I’m finding out that she’s a very good thinker on the course as well as a very good ball-striker. It’s been a lot of fun watching her play.”
Sophomore Celine Boutier opened the tournament with a sizzling five-under-par 67, but struggled throughout the final 36 holes to finish tied for 24th at one-over-par. The Frenchwoman had won her previous three tournaments and appeared ready to capture her fourth straight, but was unable to sustain that precision in the final two rounds.
For the first time in her career, third-ranked Yu Liu finished outside the top 10. The Beijing native was set back by a 12-over-par 84 Friday—her worst round of the year by nine strokes—and finished tied for 89th. Liu has struggled late in the season with her accuracy off the tee, but bounced back in the final round Saturday.
The freshman was four-under-par at one point in the round before finishing with a one-under-par 71. Liu will look to bounce back quickly and contend at the NCAA Championship, but will be at a slight disadvantage because she missed the Dale McNamara Fall Preview in September while competing in China’s National Games. The event was played at the Tulsa Golf & Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., the same course that will host the NCAA Championship.
“The most visible difficulty [Liu] was having was with her driver [Friday],” Brooks said. “But those kinds of days can be big learning experiences. The fact that she got it to four-under [Saturday] demonstrates her resolve. She's a really hard worker. She’ll learn everything she can from [Friday].”
Adding to the eventful weekend for the Blue Devils was the university's graduation proceedings. Duke traveled back to Durham Saturday so that seniors Alejandra Cangrejo and Laetitia Beck would be present for Sunday’s commencement ceremony.
Cangrejo used a two-under-par 70 in the final round to finish tied for 24th overall at one-over-par, and Beck finished tied for 47th at six-over-par. The pair’s leadership of a squad filled with international players has been crucial to the team’s success, and they will look to go out on top in their final collegiate tournament in two weeks.
Before teeing off at nationals, Liu, Boutier, Beck and Cangrejo will also try to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open at different qualifiers across the country. The Blue Devils are hoping that continued preparation and different levels of competition will translate into a competitive performance at the National Championship.
“We’re just going to do what we’ve been doing,” Brooks said. “The grass that we’re playing [at our practice area] is what we’re going to have at Tulsa. The greens are bent [grass] and the fairways and rough are bermuda [grass]. When we get everybody together, we’ll just play a couple of rounds of golf and do some serious short game practice.”