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Duke men's golf places fourth in ACC championship despite strong start

<p>Chandler Eaton shined in the ACC championships.</p>

Chandler Eaton shined in the ACC championships.

Having to play 36 holes in a single day can either be a boon or a bane for a team.

On one hand, it offers the opportunity to continue positive momentum after a strong opening 18 without worrying about cooling off overnight. On the other hand, physical and mental fatigue can settle in and the last 18 holes of the day can become a grueling drag.

Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the latter happened at the ACC Championship Thursday, leading to a fourth-place finish for the team on Saturday. After opening action at the Old North State Club in New London, N.C with a scintillating 17-under-271, which left No. 9 Duke leading by four strokes over No. 19 Clemson, a 4-over-292 later in the day left the Blue Devils out of the lead. Four of the five Blue Devils regressed on their second-18.

“Gosh, I bet there isn’t a single team in the ACC field that doesn’t play at least one or more 36-18 tournaments throughout the regular season. Ironically, there are some years where we do it more often than others,” head coach Jamie Green said. “In actuality, I think we didn’t do it this year any later than our own Rod Myers Invitational back in early September. From that aspect, it absolutely is not an excuse, but the reality of it is, I do not think you can replicate it in any other way. It is mentally fatiguing, physically fatiguing.”

A 1-over-289 in the final round left Duke tied with No. 29 Florida State at 12-under for the tournament, 25 strokes behind the Yellow Jackets. 

“Everyone goes into the championship amped up and excited. I think that showed in our first-round scoring. Our guys were ready to go and out of the gates. On the very first hole we were making eagles and birdies and getting under par early,” Green said. “I do think that throughout the day, the mental fatigue set in and it is a golf course where you have to keep it on play off the tee and it is tough to scramble. Our second round was unfortunately a combination of some mental and physical lapses. Guys scratched and clawed but the field was just a little too deep and a little too strong.” 

Chandler Eaton opened bogey-free with six birdies and an eagle, setting the Duke ACC Championship record, previously held by Adam Long, with a tap-in birdie on 18. However, Eaton could not hold the momentum through the second round. After starting the first eight holes at 1-under, a 5-over-41 on the back nine left the Alpharetta, Ga., native with a 6-over-78. A cleaner final round with four birdies and one bogey left the junior at 5-under for the weekend and in a tie for ninth. Eaton finished 8-strokes behind Seminoles’ John Pak, who won the individual title by one stroke over Georgia Tech’s Andy Ogletree.

“With Chandler, his state of mind is so important for him. He really plays his best when he’s in a place of freedom or comfort. In our sport, players are going through mental gymnastics between shots,” Green said. “When he slips a little bit, he maybe gets a little too focused on the future and a little more tension than necessary. He probably benefitted from having that day of rest [Friday] in between in bouncing back. It gave him an opportunity to take a step back and reestablish his frame of mind with stronger wind conditions.”

Alex Smalley, a semifinalist for the Ben Hogan award, suffered a similar fate as his teammate. Two consecutive birdies to open his tournament and an eagle to end his opening 18 left the senior at 5-under after one round. However, two double bogeys in the second round pushed the North Carolina native’s score to 1-over-73 and an up-and-down final round 74 left the senior tied for 18th.

Sophomore Adrien Pendaries was the most consistent of the bunch, securing a top-16 finish with rounds of 70-73-70. The Frenchman only had one double-bogey over the three rounds and never had more than two bogeys in a round. Classmate Evan Katz also opened up with a 2-under 70 after birdieing three of the last four holes, but rounds of 74 and 76 left him at 4-over for the tournament and in a tie for 38th.

Steven DiLisio was the lone Duke player to improve between the first and second rounds. After a late double bogey left the junior at a 1-over-73 through 18, DiLisio overcame four straight bogeys from holes 2-6 to shoot an even-par-72 in his second round. The Massachusetts native struggled mightily in his final round, however, shooting 6-over on the back nine en route to carding a 79 and 8-over for the tournament, just outside the top-50 in a tie for 52nd.

The Blue Devils will now wait for their NCAA regional placement, set to come May 1 on the Men’s Golf Selection Show. Although they are not guaranteed a spot, Duke held a top-five ranking for much of the season and boast three victories and a match play win over No. 1 Oklahoma State. With an at-large bid, the Blue Devils can be slotted to play at any of the following locations: Myrtle Beach, S.C., Athens, Ga., Simpsonville, Ky., Stanford, Calif., Austin, Texas, or Pullman, Wash.

“Wherever we get placed for regionals, it could be a very different golf course, a very different part of the country,” Green said. “You need to be ready for anything. Having players who have played in different places and been successful in different parts of the country is going to be valuable.”

Duke, which is returning four of its five players from last year’s postseason squad, will be looking to advance from regionals to the NCAA championships, where it made the Final Four last year. 

“Anytime you have success, as a player, you have to take the experience and know that’s the valuable part and not put pressure and expectations out there,” Green said. “While it’s great to expect success, our guys know they can do it and need to place that to the side and take care of business.”


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