The postseason is finally here.
For the Blue Devils, though, this week’s event is no different from any other.
No. 5 Duke will look to defend its ACC title Saturday through Monday at the Grandover Resort’s East Course, where it will try to earn its first victory of 2018 after going winless in the spring regular season for the first time in five years. A few unfortunate injuries and the resulting lack of roster continuity played a factor in the team’s drought, and the team’s injury issues have followed the Blue Devils into the heightened stakes of this weekend’s competition.
Despite the postseason label, though, Duke head coach Dan Brooks emphasized that his players’ approach this weekend in Greensboro, N.C., will be unchanged from how they train and practice for other tournaments.
“Golf is just a series of events—of minute events—and you just have to be completely into each of those moments and just constantly stay in the present, and there’s no change of that language when we get into any particular part of the season: early, middle or late,” Brooks said. “I don’t think we feel far off at all.... We’ve got three tournaments left before the season’s over, so we’re looking forward to getting a little more time in competition with this conference tournament.”
Defending ACC individual champion Leona Maguire will spearhead the Blue Devils, who are one week removed from a tie-for-second result at the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic in Athens, Ga. The senior from Cavan, Ireland, has seven top-10 finishes this season, holds the team’s lowest stroke average at 70.6 and arrives in Greensboro after tying for third place at the University of Georgia Golf Course with rounds of 70, 69 and 71.
Also starting this week is Leona’s sister Lisa Maguire, who will compete for the third time in the ACC championship. The senior is coming off a 13-over-par result in Athens, where she shot rounds of 80, 77 and 72 to tie for 41st.
“[Leona] and Lisa both are leaders,” Brooks said. “They’re also the two hardest workers, literally, that I’ve ever had on the team. That just has a certain weight to it. That has a certain impact. But Leona with the scores that she’s shot is just an example...she plays like a professional, so we always have this built-in example of how to play the game that’s with us all the time.”
Jaravee Boonchant will tee off riding the momentum of a stellar regular season that included six top-15 finishes and three straight tournaments in which she has placed in the top seven—the freshman tied for sixth in Georgia last week with rounds of 70, 70 and 73, highlighted by the second and third eagles of her career in each of the first two rounds. The Bangkok native will make her first postseason start as the only Duke golfer without previous ACC championship experience, but Brooks expressed no concern at her ability to keep up the impressive finishes as the stakes increase for the next several events.
Following a tie-for-28th-place outcome last week, Ana Belac will play in her second ACC championship in the midst of an interesting trend: in each of her last three starts, Belac has carded the lowest final-round score on the team despite not shooting a single under-par score in any of the events’ first two rounds.
Brooks made nothing of the recent oddity, though having the sophomore display her recent final-round form for all three days would make a huge impact on a team that is already one deep into its bench with freshman Miranda Wang sitting out with a knee injury. Belac tied for 14th at last year’s ACC championship in Pawleys Island, S.C.
Despite the postseason label on this weekend’s event, the field is surely weaker than many of the events Duke has played in this year. The Blue Devils will compete against just two other ranked teams—No. 15 Wake Forest and No. 25 North Carolina—two of the team’s last three competitions have included fields with at least seven ranked squads.
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Junior Virginia Elena Carta is set to make her second start of the spring after returning last week from a muscle strain in her left neck and chest area that hampered her ability to play and practice for several months. The Udine, Italy, native’s return to competition was rough starting out—she signed for a 5-over-par 77 in the opening round—but Carta shook off the rust in the final 36 holes with scores of 72 and 74.
As Carta makes the third ACC championship appearance and begins another postseason, her proven potential to break out at any time must be noted—in 2016, a first-year Carta seemingly came out of nowhere to blow away the field at the NCAA championship and capture the individual crown by a record eight strokes.
The team is returning to the Grandover Resort’s par-72 East Course for the first time since 1999, when it captured its seventh of 20 ACC titles. When asked about the course, though, Brooks—who has won a total of three conference championships at the East Course—drew a blank.
“No wonder I can’t remember it,” Brooks said. “I haven’t been able to bring it up in my mind. A few holes, but I don’t remember the details of them because it was 20 years ago.”
Hopefully for the Blue Devils, the outcome is just the same this time around.