Virginia Elena Carta was 5 under par in the third round of the NCAA championship when it hit her that she had a good chance to win the national title.
“I had a huge putt for birdie to finish 6 under that round. On the green, I was about to pass out because I was super nervous,” Carta said.
After a brief conversation with playing partner Anna Newell of Tennessee, who told Carta she would be okay, the Duke freshman buried the putt to finish her third round with a 66 and take a six shot lead into the final round of stroke play at the Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Ore.
That was the story of Carta’s week—a calm demeanor and efficient putting sparked the Udine, Italy, native’s record-breaking NCAA championship win.
“Everything feels like a dream this week,” Carta said.
Carta’s first collegiate tournament victory came in dominant fashion at the national championship May 23, with the first-team All-American setting championship records for 54-hole scoring and 72-hole scoring—each by four shots—and margin of victory.
Her four-day total of 16 under par led to an eight-shot win, and Carta led the field consisting of the best players in the country in birdies (20) and par-4 scoring average (3.8) and tied for the lead in par-5 scoring by posting 9 under par on 16 par-5s.
“The numbers tell the story. There’s not much more I can say about it than the fact that she was better than anybody else with her scoring,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said. “The golf course was challenging—it wasn’t like she did that because the course was easy or anything like that.”
To Brooks’ point, the scoring average for the week at the par-72 Eugene Country Club was a 2-over-par 74.0, but the golf course often looked defenseless with Carta’s booming drives and precision around the greens—play that she attributed to adjustments leading up to the tournament.
Although Carta had four straight top-10 finishes before NCAAs, she was not pleased with her ball striking in the first two postseason events—the ACC championship and the Baton Rouge, La., NCAA regional—having carded just one round better than 72 in the two events.
With the help of Brooks and assistant coach Jon Whithaus, Carta figured out that she was standing too far away from the ball and changed her setup ahead of the final event of the year.
“Having good impacts helps your confidence, so I started playing well again during the practice round,” Carta said. “I saw a few shots were getting really close to the pin, and when I had those shots, I tried to putt and the ball was rolling in. That gave me that little bit of confidence going into the first round.”
But the biggest change in Carta’s game came on the greens, where she had struggled for much of the season.
“It was just a nightmare on the green and I was struggling a lot,” Carta said.
Despite her previous difficulties putting, Carta found a rhythm on poa grass greens that were close to bent grass as opposed to Bermuda grass and reminded her of the greens she grew up putting on in Italy and across Europe.
With Carta feeling more comfortable on the greens, she looked unstoppable at times during the final 36 holes as she started holing long putts—which require good fortune in addition to skill.
“It was her week—that’s just the way it goes,” Brooks said. “There’s an expression that really pertains to her that’s used in golf all the time, and that’s giving good luck a chance. You give good luck a chance by having a positive attitude, by always believing good luck can happen and sustaining that belief. That is the definition of Virginia Elena Carta.”
With her game sharper than it had been all year, the only remaining obstacle for Carta entering the final round was handling the pressure and attention that came with leading the NCAA championship.
Although she was nervous, Carta said her previous experience coming from five shots back to win a tournament in the final round kept her focused on each shot.
“I knew that anyone could play really well or I could play bad—anything could happen the last day,” Carta said.
With several cameras and microphones following her every move, Carta took the drama out of the final day as she did throughout the week, making just one bogey en route to a final-round 69 and the title. The combination of being excited on the golf course while still handling the moment was another display of growth from the freshman.
“She has a lot of passion, and in golf you can get a little bit over-aroused and that can actually hurt your golf. With respect to her, her tempo will speed up a little bit,” Brooks said. “When her tempo gets a little fast from being too jacked up, that hurts her. This week she did a lot to calm herself down, and still play with passion.”
Now back at Duke, Carta is attending the first summer session before competing in the LPGA Tour’s Marathon Classic, U.S. Women’s Amateur and European Ladies’ Amateur Championship later this summer.
Carta and her teammates are also trying to get over the disappointment of a second straight national semifinal match play loss in the team portion of the NCAA championship—the Blue Devils fell 3-2 to Stanford in the afternoon May 24 after upsetting USC that morning.
But with 2014 National Player of the Year Celine Boutier the only player leaving a team that came one match away from competing for a seventh national title, Duke carries plenty of momentum into the summer.
And its fourth individual NCAA champion is as hungry as anyone for a different team result the next time around.
“We know how to go back next year and be ready to win this championship,” Carta said. “It was a really, really good team learning experience because we talked to each other after the round. We understood where we should have improved and what kind of mistakes we made.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.