In a season marked by setbacks and injury, No. 11 Duke still has the chance to finish on top.
The Blue Devils and 23 other programs will compete for the NCAA championship between Tuesday and Friday at the Caves Valley Golf Course in Owings Mills, Md. The program has qualified for the 72-hole tournament in twelve consecutive years.
It isn’t just the stage—but also the course—that will be familiar for Duke, but not all of the memories are without blemishes. The Blue Devils were disappointed to finish eighth at the 2008 NCAA Fall Preview at Caves Valley, and will use their past history as a starting point for a better outcome in the final tournament of the year.
“You try to learn from everything,” head coach Dan Brooks said in the fall. “We have a lot of opportunity to learn here. The course was very reasonable. The greens were receiving shots and it was reasonable length. It is a really good golf course. There were some low numbers shot out there and it was the kind of course that is a really quality course, but you can score if you are playing good golf.”
Over the past nine months, Duke’s players have had the chance to improve their individual skills, but the team has faced significant adversity. Freshman Mina Harigae, who tied senior Amanda Blumenherst’s score to finish 14th individually at Caves Valley with a score of 230 in three rounds, has since left the University to pursue a professional career. And lingering injuries—perhaps most notably junior Alison Whitaker's back injury—have forced the team of five to play short-handed.
Yet despite a turbulent season, Duke is a team with the pieces to make a run for the championship. The squad boasts an experienced foundation, as three of the Blue Devils’ five golfers—Blumenherst, Whitaker and senior Jennie Lee—are already NCAA champions.
Blumenherst is a three-time National Player of the Year, and Lee is an All-American as well. Despite struggles of their own this year, both players have played especially well of late, with Lee finishing the ACC Tournament with a three-round score of 217, and Blumenherst just two strokes behind at 219.
“I was hitting the ball so much better, which is very positive,” Blumenherst said. “I had been hitting it well during practice and when I was at Duke playing rounds I was going under par. So I was kind of frustrated with the first two rounds because it was so unlike my practice round -- I was hitting the ball really well. I hit some great putts but they just didn’t go in so it could have been a lot lower, actually. So all of those things are very positive and good momentum for nationals.”
And though ultimately it will be the players that will have to perform on the course, the guidance of Brooks should not be underestimated. The Blue Devils’ head coach is the winningest women’s golf coach in NCAA Division I history, a five-time NCAA Coach of the Year and a five-time NCAA champion.
“One step at a time,” Brooks said of Duke’s preparation. “Nothing really different. We are just going to go and do what we can. We have gotten a little bit better as we have gone along here in the spring. I think we are going to be ready.”
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