Starting their season in difficult conditions on a daunting golf course against stiff competition, the Blue Devils could have gotten intimidated and lowered their expectations.
Instead, they put themselves into contention and started the season with a top-five finish.
No. 4 Duke seized a one-shot lead at nine-over-par after 36 holes, but it surrendered that lead during the final round and finished in a tie for fourth place. Finishing the 54-hole Dale McNamara Fall Preview at 16-over-par, Duke was eight shots behind tournament winner and No. 1 Southern California at Tulsa Golf and Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., the same site that will host the 2014 NCAA Championship.
"I'm proud of them. They played golf that they should be proud of," head coach Dan Brooks said. "The conditions were pretty challenging because of the heat and wind.... I think the numbers were pretty good for those kind of conditions—we weren't ready for that heat."
Duke was led by senior Laetitia Beck, who held a share of the 36-hole individual lead at two-under-par before a final round 72 on the difficult par-70 course pushed her into a tie for eighth. Beck finished six shots behind Southern California's Kyung Kim, the tournament's individual champion.
Fellow senior Alejandra Cangrejo held a share of the individual lead halfway through her second round before faltering and finishing the tournament tied for 28th at eight-over-par. Nonetheless, both seniors set the tone early in the season with their play and their leadership.
"It's always great when your seniors step up," Brooks said. "The best thing there was that I don't think [Cangrejo] was hitting the ball particularly well, so what she showed me is that she's learned how to score whether she's hitting it really well or not.... That's the stuff you want the underclassmen to learn from seniors."
Following the lead of Beck and Cangrejo were sophomores Celine Boutier and Yi Xiao, along with freshman Sandy Choi. Boutier, playing in her first tournament for Duke since making the cut at this year's Ricoh Women's British Open at St. Andrews, carded an impressive 34 in her final nine holes to finish tied for 17th at five-over-par. Xiao shot a solid opening round 70 to help the team finish the first round in contention before struggling the rest of the way.
Choi put together the best final round on the team, turning in an even-par final-round 70 to record her first top-25 finish as a Blue Devil, tied for 24th.
"I'm so happy for her," Brooks said. "I watched quite a bit of her golf [Wednesday] and she's just so solid. She's a very consistent player. It's not flashy, but it's really good, quality golf. I learned a lot about her."
Choi joins freshmen Yu Liu and Esther Lee to give the Blue Devils an impressive trio that adds great depth to a team that finished second at the NCAA Championship last season. Liu missed Duke's first tournament because she was competing in the China's National Games. This depth gives Brooks another reason to feel good about this season's outlook.
"It's great to know that we can finish near the top without Yu Liu or Esther in the lineup," Brooks said. "I came away from this with a very positive feeling about our program".
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