Yu Liu will look to rebound from her regional performance and lead the Blue Devils in the NCAA Championship.
Chronicle File Photo
Yu Liu will look to rebound from her regional performance and lead the Blue Devils in the NCAA Championship.

Although they will be competing against 23 of the best teams in the country with everything on the line, the Blue Devils will do their best to stay within themselves and play freely.

No. 3 Duke will tee off at the NCAA Championship Tuesday at noon at the Tulsa Golf & Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. The Blue Devils will be look to put themselves in contention during the first few days of the four-day, 72-hole event and earn their fifth win of the season.

Duke will enter the event with plenty of confidence, having finished no worse than third in each of its past nine starts. But the Blue Devils know the importance of only staying focused on the next shot.

“The number one thing is to make sure you play your game and you don’t feel like you have to do something special because it’s a national championship—that’s not what it’s about,” said head coach Dan Brooks, a five-time national champion. “You just do what you’ve been doing all season long and make sure that you play every shot as if it’s the last shot of the tournament right from the start. If you do that, then probably the best team is going to win this tournament."

Many of the teams competing this week have already played the 6,194, par-70 course competitively this season at the Dale McNamara Fall Preview in early September. The Blue Devils played well that week even without the services of one of their strongest performers, freshman Yu Liu. Duke entered the final round with the lead before finishing tied for fourth.

That experience, along with the multiple pre-tournament practice rounds, should ensure that Duke feels comfortable playing the precise golf necessary to score well on the A.W. Tillinghast layout redesigned by noted golf course architect Rees Jones.

“Having played the Fall Preview is definitely going to help [us] because [we’ve] seen the course and know which areas to work on,” sophomore Celine Boutier said. “The practice rounds are a good time to practice your strategy, so just trying different shots and different clubs for different strategies [will be effective].”

Boutier—a three-time winner this season and the ACC Player of the Year—will look to anchor the Blue Devil lineup as she has done throughout the spring. The Frenchwoman enters the tournament with a great deal of momentum having recently won a qualifying tournament in Colorado for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club Course No. 2 in the Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

She also has experience at the NCAA Championship after finishing tied for fourth a season ago. Following Duke’s final tournament of the season, she will begin preparing to compete in her second professional major championship.

“It means a lot because it’s my first try to play in the U.S. Open,” Boutier said. “Playing in a major is just awesome and I’m really excited and looking forward to it. [Qualifying] was really stressful but I tried not to think about the result and just play my own game and see what happens.”

Laetitia Beck also enters the event with a great deal of momentum. The senior recently shot a course-record round of 62 at Croasdaile Country Club in Durham and owns a consistent 72.33 stroke average on the season.

Liu is the third Blue Devil ranked in the top 12 of Golfweek’s individual rankings and will look to bounce back from her worst performance of the season at the NCAA East Regional when she was done in by a second-round 84. The Beijing native has finished in the top 10 of every other tournament this season and could use her enormous power off the tee to her advantage this week.

Although Liu’s driving distance can be a blessing, when she struggles with accuracy with her aggressive mindset, negative rounds like her recent 84 at the NCAA East Regional can arise.

Freshman Sandy Choi and senior Alejandra Cangrejo will round out the Duke lineup this week in Tulsa. Choi has finished in the top 10 of her last two tournaments and has steadily improved this season, and Cangrejo has plenty of postseason experience having competed for one of the best programs in the country for four years.

All of the Blue Devils will take comfort in the fact that its head coach is returning to the site of his first NCAA Championship victory in 1999 and is the all-time winningest women’s golf coach in NCAA Division I history.

Although Brooks is grateful for his success, he is still completely focused on this squad’s ability to handle the challenge that awaits—most notably the tricky greens that could determine this year’s champion.

“It’s exciting [to go back], but the course is very different and that was a long time ago so I’m really approaching this like just another championship that we’re going to do our best at and [am] not that reminiscent about it,” Brooks said. “It was redesigned by Rees Jones, so we’re going to have the challenges of a little bit deeper bunkers and complicated greens for reading.”