Twice this fall, Duke entered the final round in the top three. 

But just as quickly as it jumped up the leaderboards, a familiar sinking feeling set in. The Blue Devils repeatedly stumbled, finishing lower than they started after the first round in every tournament this fall. 

It was never more pronounced than in October, when Duke entered the final rounds of the Nike Collegiate Invitational and the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate in the top three, but finished 10th or worse in both. A talented group top-to-bottom started the year ranked No. 24, but has tumbled all the way to No. 51 after a poor showing at the Sea Best Invitational Feb. 6—a performance that head coach Jamie Green said was not in “the right hemisphere” of where he wanted to be. 

Star sophomore Chandler Eaton and the Blue Devils have been left searching for answers as to why they have faded late. Those answers will have to come quickly, with just two months until the ACC championship.

“Obviously, there was some confusion about why that was happening. I can’t really speak for everybody, but for me it was just a focus on the wrong things,” Eaton said. “Instead of just trying to finish a tournament, it was more of hearing that some people are struggling. Then you start worrying about dropping on the leaderboard instead of worrying about hitting your next shot.”

An All-ACC golfer in his first season at Duke, Eaton imploded to shoot 75 and 76 in the two final rounds at the Nike Golf Collegiate Invitational and the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate—which is played at his home course. The former No. 13 recruit in the nation has bettered his scoring average this season, but has not come through when it has counted most. 

The lack of clutch play has been a top-down problem—both All-ACC junior and scoring leader Alex Smalley and No. 7 scorer Adam Wood have each shot 8-over-par in their last three final rounds. 

Green said after Duke’s 12th-place finish in the Sea Best Invitational that he would institute more competition in practice to help get his team off the mat. So far, Eaton thinks it is working. 

“There’s been a lot more focus in practice and a lot more focus on the little things like taking care of our bodies, making sure that we are really focused when we are playing,” Eaton said. “We’re playing a lot more and we’re trying our best to get people competitive and have them fear losing. That’s what competition does—it gets you locked in on what you need to do to play well.”

Duke will have nearly a full month off before traveling to Mexico for the Querencia Cabo Collegiate March 4-6 to get itself back on track. Eaton is confident that the Blue Devils are close to reaching their potential. 

“We have some amazing players on the team, and it only takes one event for us to get our confidence back,” Eaton said. “Maybe it’s this tournament, maybe it’s the next, to build some momentum from there.”

Duke has struggled to find an effective lineup behind Eaton and Smalley. Freshmen Evan Katz and Adrien Pendaries have shown flashes of potential—they both carded top-10 finishes at the final tournament of the fall. But Pendaries slipped to a tie for 41st in the first spring tournament, and Katz imploded to shoot a brutal 21-over-par. 

The more experienced Blue Devils have also been all over the course—senior Wood has shot 46-over-par in his last three tournaments, and fellow senior Jake Shuman has also taken a big dip after earning a top-10 finish in the first tournament of the fall, the Rod Myers Invitational. 

The team’s most talented player, Eaton, thinks he can help the team by putting his head down and working. 

“I can’t make the team play better,” Eaton said. “Only I can do my job and play better. It’s just focus and not a whole lot of chatting while at practice, not a whole lot of talk with the other guys. Just trying to do my job.”

Especially heading into the Querencia Cabo Collegiate, where he finished tied for seventh last year, Eaton is confident about his game.  

“My game is in a spot where I can really do something special, so my expectation is to do some special things,” Eaton said. “We’ll see where it takes me.”