About midway through the second round of the ACC championship Saturday, April 22, the Blue Devils’ lead looked like it might be slipping away.
After Duke came out strong to extend a one-stroke lead to 10 shots, senior Alexander Matlari, freshman Chandler Eaton and junior Jake Shuman combined to play just six holes in 12-over-par during a rough patch in the middle of the round, quickly shaving four shots off the team’s lead.
But playing some of its best golf of the year, the No. 24 Blue Devils righted the ship and cruised through the rest of the second round before staying steady in the final 18 holes later Saturday en route to their first ACC championship since 2013. Duke led wire to wire at Musgrove Mill Golf Course in Clinton, S.C., opening with a blistering 11-under-par round Friday that sparked the Blue Devils’ three-day total of 14-under-par—good enough for a 12-shot victory against No. 13 Clemson.
“At some point, you might hit a rough patch. We talked about just bouncing back and how to handle things in terms of staying focused on the shot that’s in front of you,” Duke head coach Jamie Green said. “It’s probably the most difficult thing to do in our game, letting go of whatever adversity or whatever not so great things had happened for you, but that just shows where they’ve been working really hard.”
All five Blue Devil players in the lineup finished in the top 15 individually at even par or better, with Green’s team dominating par-3s and par-5s and also still tying for the best par-4 scoring in the field, as the 12 teams adjusted on the fly when Sunday’s final round was moved to Saturday due to expected inclement weather.
Despite being the fifth-highest ranked conference team behind No. 9 Wake Forest, the Tigers, No. 17 Virginia and No. 19 Georgia Tech, Duke was the best ACC team when it counted to build momentum heading deeper into the postseason.
Unlike previous tournaments that saw the Blue Devils doomed by slow starts, Duke was dialed in right away on the unfamiliar ACC championship course—the event’s venue because of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2.
Led by senior Matt Oshrine and Shuman, who both carded 4-under-par 68s in the first round on the 6,951-yard course, the Blue Devils took a one-shot lead on Florida State and a two-stroke edge on Clemson into Saturday.
“We spent more time out there in the practice round than we probably had been in a while for the sole purpose of making sure that the guys were extremely comfortable on the greens,” Green said. “Our guys did a terrific job of being focused and getting all the proper information so that when they got out on there in the competition, there was a comfort level.”
As the course conditions toughened early Saturday—players averaged 1.1 more strokes in the second round than they did the previous day and Florida State was 22 strokes worse in the second round—Duke held tough, with sophomore Alex Smalley’s 3-under-par round offsetting higher scores from a few of his teammates.
A day after setting the pace by one, the Blue Devils matched the low round of any team in the second 18 holes at 3-under-par to give themselves plenty of breathing room in a stress-free final round that never saw Duke really threatened.
Smalley contended for the individual title with impeccable play Saturday, overcoming a 1-over-par first round—the Blue Devils’ worst score Friday that was dropped because only the top four scores in each round contribute to team score—with rounds of 69 and 70 to finish tied for fifth at 4-under-par.
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The Wake Forest, N.C., native had a chance to get into a five-way playoff and battle for an individual conference championship but could not find another birdie down the stretch.
“Once you’re in play, he’s as good an iron player as I’ve ever coached,” Green said. “If you can keep repeatedly knocking on the door and just keep giving yourself birdie looks and birdie opportunities, eventually you’re going to make some. He’s that kind of player.”
Shuman carded Duke’s only two eagles of the week and continued playing his best golf, finishing tied for eighth at 2-under-par despite a final-round 75 that knocked him out of contention for the individual title.
Senior Matt Oshrine has also come on late in the year and battled to a final-round 75, which was still good enough to tie for 10th at 1-under-par following the veteran’s blistering start. He finished tied with fellow senior Matlari, who carded rounds of 69, 74 and 72 by leading the field in par-5 scoring at 9-under-par on the longest holes.
A powerful driver, Matlari tied for the individual lead in birdies made at 15 and was part of his first ACC championship team.
In his postseason debut, freshman Chandler Eaton finished 14th at even par, tying with Oshrine, Shuman and a Yellow Jacket competitor to lead the field in par-3 scoring at 2-under-par. Duke’s dominance on the shortest and longest holes ended up carrying it to an eighth conference crown.
The Blue Devils will now prepare for NCAA regionals May 15-17 as they try to get back to the NCAA championship after missing it last year. Duke was the No. 4 seed in last year’s regional in Stillwater, Okla., but finished eighth following a 33-over-par opening round on a brutally-difficult golf course.
Green’s team will hope to maintain its top form in the coming weeks and fare better at regionals this year—the Blue Devils will need a top-five finish at their assigned regional to make it to the NCAA championship in Sugar Grove, Ill. Duke will find out where it is going for regionals May 4, with practice time trimmed down in the next two weeks for final exams.
“it’s just important for each guy to keep his body in good shape, to make sure he’s eating well and getting some exercise,” Green said. “Once we put the books away and close down the computer, we’ll have a few days before we go to regionals, so obviously there will be a lot of focus there on what we would need to do to be successful at that particular golf course.”