In 2015, the young Blue Devils limped off the 18th green at the ACC championship with their worst three-day finish of the season, only to rebound with a third-place performance at the NCAA regional to punch their tickets to the NCAA championship.
Fast-forward 12 months, and Duke is coming off one of its best-ever weekends as it readies for another shot at the Old North State Club.
The No. 18 Blue Devils will travel to New London, N.C., for the ACC championship Friday through Sunday on the 7,102-yard couse, two weeks removed from a record-setting performance at the Princeton Invitational. Freshman Alex Smalley picked up the first individual win of his career April 10 as Duke carded a 25-under-par 36-hole performance, including a program-best 15-under-par final round.
The task at hand now, though, is to atone for last year’s 22-over-par, 10th-place finish at the ACC championship, one that slowed the momentum of another late-season charge before the Blue Devils rediscovered their magic at the regional site.
“All sports are about playing with confidence and self-belief, and anytime you can set some records and win, it invariably gives the guys confidence,” Duke head coach Jamie Green said. “They were in a couple of opportunities this spring, kept the pedal down [and got some victories].”
Four of the five Duke golfers at the Princeton Invitational finished in the top 10, though the competition at that event will not stack up with the ACC squads the Blue Devils will meet in New London this weekend. Headlined by No. 10 Clemson—which lost last year’s event in a two-hole playoff—five other top-25 teams are part of the field.
Still, topping multiple program records bodes well for Green’s squad going into the weekend. Smalley, who has started all 10 of Duke’s events this season, has turned in four top-10 finishes as a freshman, including three in Duke’s last four events—the Blue Devils won all three.
“He’s gone in with his eyes wide open and ears open...even if it’s just getting used to the surroundings, traveling with the team, practice rounds,” Green said. “He really hasn’t changed much. He just took the game that he had and applied it to his surroundings.”
Green will not change his lineup from the Princeton Invitational, sending Smalley, sophomores Jake Shuman and Adam Wood and juniors Max Greyserman and Matt Oshrine—a Loyola transfer—to the links this weekend. Three members of that quintet—Shuman, Wood and Greyserman—have experience at the Old North State Course, with Wood the only Blue Devil to finish under par, coming in at two-under-par as a freshman last season, tying for 14th place. Shuman carded four-over-par in his first ACC championship last year, and Greyserman was 10-over-par as a freshman at the 2014 event before not competing in last season’s championship.
Duke’s success this spring has been driven by a lineup without an identifiable star to carry the load tournament after tournament. Instead, the Blue Devils have taken turns pacing the squad—all five golfers who will tee it up this weekend have placed as high as second this season, with Shuman and Greyserman tying for runner-up honors behind Smalley at the Princeton Invitational.
Wood leads Duke with a 71.2 scoring average—the only Blue Devil to average an under-par round—but all five golfers are within two strokes of the Zionsville, Ind., native, an indication of a well-balanced team. With no seniors in the lineup—and Oshrine competing in his first season in Durham—Green elected to not have a team captain, instead allowing the unit to shoulder the leadership role together.
“If your best players are freshmen and sophomores, then it looks like you have a young team,” Green said. “The guys don’t feel like they have to play great to lead the team. They’re all out there thinking about winning the tournament and [have] the ability to do so.”
Despite the Blue Devils’ struggles there a year ago, the Old North State Club has lent itself to low rounds in the past—Georgia Tech won the 2015 ACC championship with a team score of 19 under par, one of five teams to get to at least 10 strokes under par. But the elements—particularly the wind—can wreak havoc, as the Blue Devils found out last year.
With Mother Nature a possible factor, Duke has to set itself up for makeable putts, which means hitting greens in regulation—something the five Blue Devils competing this weekend do a combined 66.7 percent of the time.
“You need to keep it in play off the tee on this golf course, because if you can do that, you can attack it, and it’s not a long course,” Green said. “I always end up telling the guys that it ends up being a putting contest.”