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ChronSports' Top 10 of 2018 — No. 8: Duke men's golf surprises with a Final Four spot

<p>Alex Smalley's success was crucial to Duke's Final Four run.</p>

Alex Smalley's success was crucial to Duke's Final Four run.

With the end of 2018 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.

Coming in at No.8 on our list: Duke men’s golf rides strong mid-tournament play throughout the end of the regular season and postseason en route to the national semifinals for the first time since 2011.

The Blue Devils started the fall portion of their season slowly— succumbing to subpar final rounds that plummeted the team down the leaderboard. In October, at the Nike Collegiate Invitation and the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, Duke dropped eight places in both tournaments after holding a top-three position.

However, the change in seasons seemed to bring good luck to the Blue Devils, who finished in the top-five in consecutive tournaments in March. As the calendar turned to April, Duke started its amazing run to the Final Four. 

Starting with the D.A. Webring Intercollegiate in Illinois, the Blue Devils shot even-par in the final two rounds to commandingly win the title over Wisconsin by 15 strokes. On the individual side, Chandler Eaton and Adam Wood tied for the victory at 4-over, while two of their teammates also secured top-10 finishes. 

The success continued two weeks late closer to home at the Stich Intercollegiate at MacGregor Downs in Cary, N.C. After a 4-under opening round left Duke in fourth, a scintillating 18-under second round shot the Blue Devils up to first and they held on to a six stroke win over Wake Forest, shooting 36-under. On the individual side, Alex Smalley finished in a tie for second thanks to a season-best 65 in the second round, and then-freshmen duo Evan Katz and Adrien Pendaries notched top-10 finishes.

Riding high off of two consecutive victories, Duke head to New London, N.C., to try to defend their ACC title and receive an auto-bid to the NCAA Regionals. However, a 2-under opening round left the Blue Devils in ninth and at risk of potentially missing the tournament. Nonetheless, once again, a strong second round of 12-under pushed Duke into the top-five, after which it held on to finish in fifth.

With the strong end to their season, the Blue Devils were awarded the five-seed in the regional at Lonnie Poole Golf Course in Raleigh, N.C. With only the top-six teams from each regional allowed to advance, a 10th place standing after one round left Duke on the outside looking in. With a 12-under second round and 7-under third round, however, the Blue Devils vaulted into second place behind Texas—whom they would encounter later—with Smalley and Jake Shuman registering top-10 performances.

Thus came Duke’s final test and the biggest show in college golf – the NCAA championship at Karsten Creek Country Club in Stillwater, Okla. The Blue Devils needed a top-eight finish in the four-round stroke-play portion to advance to the match play bracket that would decide the championship.

After an opening 3-over left Duke outside the top-10, rounds of 1-under and 12-under pushed the Blue Devils into the front of the pack, three strokes clear of host-No.1 Oklahoma State. Although an 18-over final round saw Duke cede the lead to the Cowboys, the team had successfully advanced to match-play as a two-seed and had a date with the seven-seed Longhorns.

“They are a smart golf team. They are studious. After a practice round or a first day, they learn. They do not just sit back and hope it goes well tomorrow. They know why it would go well tomorrow,” head coach Jaime Green said. “That is the way you’re going to compete at this championship. You got to get through every day. Every little bump in the road, you got to just be able to survive it.”

The quarterfinals matchup was full of drama with the two squads splitting the first four matches—Smalley and Pendaries putting up the points for the Blue Devils. Tied at 2-2, the match came down to the final hole between then-senior Shuman and Texas’ Doug Ghim —then the No.1 amateur in the world. After hitting a beautiful wood onto the green from over 200 yards out on the par-five-18th, Shuman needed two putts to secure the win for Duke. However, the senior shut the door on the first try, canning a 25-foot eagle putt to put the Blue Devils over 3-2.

“Jake has really played the par-5s well all week. I was with him on nine and 18 and he really pounded the drives well to give himself birdie or even eagle looks. He has length and put the ball in position multiple times. Jake was not laying up. He had a perfect number and a perfect hybrid,” Green said. “For him to step up and hit the golf shot as well as he did onto the green, that really put a lot of pressure on Doug. Two great golf shots and the eagle putt was just the icing on the cake.”

The semifinals saw Duke’s magical run come to an end, as the Blue Devils could not muster a comeback over Alabama after a mid-round Crimson Tide surge. All five Duke players lost their matches as the Blue Devils bowed out 5-0, capping a historic season. 

“It is such a tight-knit group and they work so hard. It is easy for me to shower them with accolades, but these seniors left their mark creating an environment where guys cherish being on the team,” Green said. “This year has been a year of growth, we had our bumps, some final rounds where we did not compete very well. This team stuck with it and did not lose faith. They grew together and it was sweet to see it here at the national championship.”

READ MORE on Duke's run to the Final Four 

25-foot eagle putt from Duke men's golf's Shuman propels Blue Devils to NCAA semifinals

Duke men's golf sets program-records, earns No. 2 seed in match play of NCAA championship

Duke men's golf finishes second in NCAA regionals, punches ticket to championships

A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:

No. 10: Duke volleyball earns first postseason bid since 2014

No. 9: Duke women's tennis rides dominant play for a trip to the national semifinals


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