The Blue Devils have shown steady improvement all spring, coming in second place last month in Auburn, Ala., after opening 2018 with a season-worst eighth-place result back in February.
Now that Duke’s golfers have had several weeks off from competition to work on their games, the team will look to continue that upward trend by closing out the regular season with a win.
The fifth-ranked Blue Devils will travel to Athens, Ga., Friday and Saturday to compete in the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic, where the team will tee off alongside 11 teams in the 54-hole stroke play event. As Duke tries to build momentum heading into next week’s ACC championship, it will be tested this week by the University of Georgia Golf Course, a 6,279-yard layout characterized by heavy elevation changes and tricky greens—a combination sure to test players’ precision on approach shots as well as their putting.
“You’re playing on a course with a lot of elevation change hitting into greens that have a lot of undulation and plateaus, so I’ve been telling players that putting from plateau to plateau in their practice is a great idea,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said. “To get on a lot of greens, you’ve got to be willing to hit it to the middle and that means you’re going to wind up in the wrong plateau, if that makes sense. So it’s going to be some tough putting. Long putts are going to be imperative.”
The event was slated to take place Sunday as well, but a threat of rain condensed the tournament. Thirty-six holes will be played Friday now, with the final 18 taking place Saturday.
The Blue Devils’ roster for the event was shaken up at the last minute with announcement of a knee injury to freshman Miranda Wang—a significant setback not only because Wang is coming off a career-best tie for fifth at Auburn, but also because it forces Virginia Elena Carta into the lineup prematurely as she recovers from a persistent muscle strain in her chest and neck area that Brooks characterized as “a little bit mysterious” and which could ultimately impact her availability for the postseason.
Carta—who has been sidelined all spring—was originally scheduled to compete as an individual, giving her the flexibility to ease into competition and withdraw from the event if pain became too severe. As part of the starting lineup, though, she now faces extra pressure to bring her best to Athens and fill the void left by Wang.
Carta's shift into the lineup opened up a spot for former No. 1-ranked amateur Hannah O'Sullivan to compete as an individual. O'Sullivan has struggled to shoot the scores necessary to make her way into the starting lineup this spring, but made her collegiate debut March 31 competing as an individual in a one-day competition hosted by Wake Forest, where she shot 88.
Amid the lineup jumble, though, Duke still has several players who will tee off healthy and in solid form. Sophomore Ana Belac has hit stride recently for the Blue Devils, as the sophomore opened the spring by tying for 60th but has carded back-to-back top-20 results and turned in a lower final-round score than any of her teammates in those events: a 68 in Auburn and a 69 at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate.
Brooks attributed those strong single-round performances to improvements in Belac’s lower-body stability, so this weekend’s event will provide an opportunity for Belac see if those changes can be implemented throughout a longer stretch of competition.
"We’ve just continued with the same simple ideas," Brook said about Belac's swing. "We haven’t broadened it—she hasn’t needed to—so it’s just been an ongoing process... I think her practice has been consistently strong throughout the spring, and that didn’t change in the last couple of weeks."
With Belac trending up, other Duke golfers will look to maintain the steady, consistent play that has characterized their spring seasons. Freshman Jaravee Boonchant will head to Athens for the first time following a tie for seventh three weeks ago and having finished in the top 15 in six out of seven contests this season—a feat that has earned her the team’s second-lowest scoring average of 71.5.
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Also competing in the event is Lisa Maguire, who will make her fourth consecutive start following a tie-for-50th-place finish at the Evans Derby Experience. The senior holds a 76.1 scoring average through 13 rounds and shot a 79 when the team last competed at the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic in 2016.
Leona Maguire will return to the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic for the first time since her freshman campaign, as the team did not play there last year and Maguire missed the 2016 rendition to compete in a professional event. Her game is in great shape, with Maguire having posted six top-10 finishes this season, and Brooks expects that solid play to continue this week.
“This is a great course for her,” Brooks said. “She’ll be smart enough to play conservative golf to these greens, so she’ll be putting a lot. That’s the name of the game here, it’s going to be getting on as many greens as possible because if you don’t get on the green, a lot of these green complexes will reject the ball and you’ll be in a pretty tough spot. So, I expect her to size this course up quite well.”