Just three days after their female counterparts fell a bit short in their bid to capture a second straight national championship, the Blue Devils will hit the course with a similar goal in mind.
After placing third in the Lubbock, Texas, regional two weeks ago, Duke will tee off on No. 10 at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., at 8:40 a.m. Friday in the first round of the NCAA championship. The Blue Devils will be paired with Florida and Clemson for the first two rounds of stroke play, with the second round beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Despite receiving the No. 8 seed in the NCAA regionals, Duke came out firing with an eight-under-par team score in the opening round. After all was said and done across three days of play, the Blue Devils had scored better than then-No. 7 Auburn and two other top-30 schools en route to qualifying for the NCAA championships.
The strong performance at The Rawls Course—Duke’s best 54-hole score this year—has the Blue Devils feeling like they are finally reaching their full potential after a disappointing fall season. Senior Turner Southey-Gordon pointed to a team meeting back in the fall as the springboard for this squad that is the first Duke team in four years to advance past the NCAA regional.
“At the end of the fall—really the turning point of our season I think—we came in last in our last tournament of the fall, we sat down for a long time, few hours, had a meeting with all the players and all the coaches. We talked about, from a players’ standpoint, what we wanted changed,” Southey-Gordon said. “We were able to pick up a couple wins, get some good finishes in and then play great at regionals and advance to the NCAA finals. I’m really proud of this group of guys out here, very excited.”
The Blue Devils and the rest of the field—which is missing two-time defending champion Alabama—will compete in three rounds of stroke play from Friday through Sunday. At that point, the top 15 teams will then compete in one final round of stroke play Monday, with the eight lowest scores advancing to the match play portion of the tournament.
The quarterfinals and semifinals of match play will be held on Tuesday, setting the stage for Wednesday’s final round match play between the only two teams left standing.
In match play, each of the five starters is pitted against another school’s starter in a match worth one point, and the team with the most number of points after each match has been played moves on. Unlike in traditional stroke play—where the lowest score from each team is dropped to obtain the total four-person score—every one of the five starters enters the day knowing their match will count.
Match play is a format not commonly used in collegiate regular-season tournaments, providing a new and exciting twist for most teams as they look to close in on the title. But Duke head coach Jamie Green says many of his players are familiar with the structure as a result of youth competition, and freshman standout Adam Wood even claimed a few individual match play titles of his own before coming to Durham.
“They know the format. We don’t have a lot of it in college golf and so it’s a curious thing that our sport chooses to do it at the end of the year when there’s not a lot of it during the regular scene, but most college players and players in golf are used to that growing up,” Green said. “They play a lot of match play because stroke play when you’re little is tough to add up all those strokes and see a good result. They’re okay with it, they’re comfortable with it.”
In order to reach the match play stage of the tournament, the Blue Devils will need their two dynamic freshmen to continue playing with experience that belies their rookie status. Wood and fellow freshman Jake Shuman are Duke’s top two golfers in terms of scoring average, and the pair has combined for 11 top-20 finishes.
At the regional tournament, Wood fired a final-round 69 to tie Southey Gordon for the overall team lead at two-under-par. Shuman poured in six birdies in the opening round en route to a four-under-par 67—tied for the Blue Devils’ lowest 18-hole score across the three rounds—to help Duke jump out to its fast start.
As important as talented youth will be for the Blue Devils, the veteran presence of Southey-Gordon—the lone senior in the lineup—cannot be understated. The Toronto native tied with Wood for 11th place at the regionals and has posted seven even-par-or-better rounds in his last 15 tries. Southey-Gordon has been the leader for Green’s squad all year as it has navigated its fair share of ups and downs, and Wood pointed to the embrace between Southey-Gordon and his father after the clinching putt in Lubbock as one of the top moments of his freshman year.
As Southey Gordon suits up for his last tournament in a Duke uniform, the Blue Devils have a tall task ahead of them. With temperatures expected to be in the 90s and many of the nation’s elite programs standing in their way, Duke will have to be firing on all cylinders to chase down more postseason success.
“It’ll be a challenge for sure, we’re going to the humid Florida heat. Both physically and mentally, you’ve got to stay with it because especially in a sport like golf and at a venue like the national championship, any lapse in concentration or loss of focus can really cost you,” Wood said. “We’ll be sharp—we’ll make sure that mentally and physically, we’re ready to go every day of the competition.”