Following the women’s lead, the Duke men made history Sunday.
Behind a championship-winning performance by junior Ryan Blaum, the Blue Devils won their first ACC championship since 1966 and the first of head coach Rod Myers’ 32-year tenure. Blaum’s individual victory was the first by a Blue Devil since 1999 and the third with Myers’ at the helm.
“This feels really sweet,” Myers said. “It’s very special when you’ve waited this long. It really means a lot to me. We all think of the ACC as the top conference in the country. Winning this title is a cherished thing. You know you’ve validated yourself.”
After entering the final day in a first-place tie with Georgia Tech, Duke pulled away, beating the field by four strokes. Blaum’s final-round 67 propelled the team to victory and helped him to capture the individual crown.
The junior led the tournament from start to finish, posting the lowest score in each of the three rounds on his way to a 10-under par finish. The 12th-ranked Blaum won the event by eight strokes over Georgia Tech’s Chan Song.
“I’m really happy with the way I played,” Blaum said. “On the final day, all I was thinking about was the team, and I ending up posting the best round of the tournament.”
Blaum, who entered the day with a four-stroke lead, notched five birdies and no bogies during the final round.
“Ryan really put us on his shoulders,” Myers said. “He looked unbeatable out there. He literally smoked his opponents. It was certainly a great performance.”
Even with Blaum’s effort, Duke needed strong showings from its other players to take home the trophy. Junior Nathan Smith, ranked 24th nationally, struggled with his ball-striking much of the tournament, Myers said.
He played consistently, however, turning in even-par rounds each of the first two days and was one over for the tournament. He finished in a fourth-place tie and his 18th-hole birdie all but secured the Duke victory.
“Nate had some situations where he made some really good up-and-downs to save par,” Myers said. “At one point, I thought, ‘Oh my Goodness, he’s going to shoot a 75 or 76.’ But he just wouldn’t let it happen. He’s just so competitive.”
Both Blaum and Smith have been strong all season long, but the Blue Devils have started to come on strong lately because of the help of Michael Schachner. One week ago, he fired an eight-under-par tournament, carrying Duke to victory at the Courtyard by Mariott Invitational.
He could not continue his solid play into the first round of this weekend’s event, however, carding a 10-over 82. But the freshman kept his composure, coming back in the second round to notch a 73, including the championship’s only eagle. He turned in a two-under 70 Sunday and finished in a tie for 22nd place.
“It really says a lot about his maturity,” Myers said. “To come off a great tournament and play a poor opening round, he probably lost some concentration. But he did a really nice job of regrouping and, in a team game, that’s what becomes important.”
The team’s inexperienced fourth and fifth players also contributed balanced golf. Both freshman Michael Quagliano and sophomore Jake Grodzinsky were playing in their first ACC Championship.
Quagliano played consistently, carding two rounds of three over and one at four over. Grodzinsky struggled in each of the first two rounds, recording scores of 76 and 79. But he shot a one-over 73 in the final round that was instrumental in the Blue Devil victory.
“The two freshmen and Jake really stepped it up,” Blaum said. “When I heard that Schachner was three under through four, that really motivated me.”
Looking forward, the Blue Devils have over a month until they compete in the NCAA regionals, where they will need a top-10 finish to qualify for the NCAA Championships, which start June 1. Duke has not had a top-10 showing in the NCAA Championships since 1962, when it finished third. A 10th-place finish in 1993 is the best under Myers, but hopes appear to be high this season.
“I think we would have beaten any team in the country the way we played this week,” Blaum said. “So I think our NCAA chances are pretty good.”
Myers, who was thrilled with his team’s performance this weekend, expects more from his squad in its final two events.
“The best part is that you can win a tournament like this and still feel like you can play better,” Myers said. “I really think this puts us up there as one of the elite teams in the nation. I think these guys are getting more and more confident every day. I wish the regionals were next week.”
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