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A new tradition unlike any other: Duke women's golf well represented at inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur

Jaravee Boonchant, currently the No. 25 amateur in the world, leads a group of five Blue Devils into the first-ever ladies' tournament at Augusta National.
Jaravee Boonchant, currently the No. 25 amateur in the world, leads a group of five Blue Devils into the first-ever ladies' tournament at Augusta National.

The Super Bowl. The World Series. Certain events have been entrenched in American sporting culture for decades, with a historical legacy that lives on long into the future. Since its inception 85 years ago, the pinnacle of golf has always been The Masters. 

Yet the many traditions of The Masters and its world-famous Augusta National Golf Club—arriving up Magnolia Lane, the honorary first tee ceremony, the Butler Cabin champion interview—have always been limited to men. 

Until now. 

Although there will be no green jacket, the other traditions remain for 72 of the top women’s amateur golf players around the globe, who will be welcomed to Augusta, Ga., this week for the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The players will first compete in two rounds on Wednesday and Thursday at the nearby Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Ga. to narrow the playing field to 30. 

All players will then receive an official practice round at Augusta National Friday before those who made the cut participate in a final round Saturday, aired live on NBC from noon-3 p.m, to decide a champion.

Five players representing Duke, each with their own story, have been selected to participate: Senior Virginia Elena Carta, junior Ana Belac, sophomore Jaravee Boonchant, freshman Gina Kim and incoming recruit Erica Shepherd, all of whom are currently among the top 90 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.

“It’s a really special thing. Augusta doesn’t host tournaments lightly, right?” Blue Devil head coach Dan Brooks said with a laugh. “I’m proud of them. Each and every one of them.”

Big dreams for the Augusta greens

Until recently, stepping foot onto the greens at Augusta was nothing more than a pipe dream for female golfers around the world. 

For a sport that boasts the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which in its 70th season is the longest-running women’s professional sports organization in the United States, an air of exclusivity surrounded the course. There was a U.S. Open, a British Open and a PGA Championship, but no version of The Masters for women in the States, even with the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame located in Augusta. 

Things began to change in 2013 with the announcement of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, an all-new junior skills contest open to boys and girls aged 7-15, with the final putting competition on the 18th green. Three Drive, Chip & Putt participants are in the Women’s Amateur field this week, including Kim, who placed fourth in the 14-15 age division in 2015. 

“We only got a little taste of it, but we haven't seen the full thing,” said Kim about the Drive, Chip & Putt players. “So I guess we're trying to be mentally prepared. We're probably more well equipped than others, considering that we've been on the 18th green before.” 

Still, her brief experience in that tournament could not compare to a chance at the real thing. Putting on the 18th green was nothing like playing the full course amongst the best in the game. So when she heard last year’s announcement from current Chairman Fred Ridley about the new event, Kim knew she had to make qualifying for the tournament a primary goal, even if it seemed surreal.

“It was definitely something I dreamed about as a little girl,” Kim said. “I always watched the Masters every year and every time I watched them come up on the 18th hole I’m like, 'Wow—that’s definitely something I want to do in my lifetime.' Did I expect to see it happening at the age of 18? No. So it was definitely unexpected, but I feel truly blessed to be able to be a part of that experience.”

Another 18-year-old player is soon-to-be teammate Shepherd, who has become used to this kind of success at a young age. Although she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at age 15, Augusta was the dream for her as well. She was a patron at the 2006 Masters at age five, and in fifth grade, her bucket list included becoming the first woman amateur to compete at the Masters. 

While she hasn’t quite reached that, this is about as close as it gets. 

“It's amazing to think that these young women had dreams, had ideas, had notions to do something that at that time was never a possibility,” said Golf Channel college insider Steve Burkowski. “It's almost like they had a sixth sense of what maybe was going to come in the game of golf.”

A greater purpose

With the dream of playing at Augusta realized, it would be easy to become obsessed over one’s individual performance in terms of the personal impact it had. As a senior, however, 2016 NCAA individual champion Virginia Elena Carta has learned to step back and see the bigger picture rather than focus on herself. 

“It’s a great opportunity for women’s golf, and hopefully it will be something that will live on and improve, and...attract the attention of many people,” Carta said. “Sponsors, the male side of the public which is usually not really interested in women’s golf—it’s just great to be apart of it.”

Not only does she hope to pique interest in women’s golf from the opposite gender, but she sees an opportunity to do the same for girls in her home country as well. Hailing from the city of Udine, Carta is one of four golfers in the field from Italy, which sends the third-most of any country. 

Golf has become increasingly popular in Italy as of late with the success of the World No. 7 Francesco Molinari, who won the 2018 Open Championship, the first major won by an Italian professional golfer. With little girls back home watching her be a part of history with this tournament, she hopes to inspire them while showcasing the sport she loves.

When Carta played in several professional tournaments in the past, like the LPGA’s U.S. Open and Marathon Classic, she felt a certain responsibility to perform just by being there. Carta hopes to not only play well for herself, but prove that the committee made the right decision as her way of gratitude. 

Plus, she’s playing for the girls that have joined her in wearing the blue and white all year long. 

“It is an individual tournament, but we’re going to be there as a team no matter what. We’re not keeping score as a team, but we’re going to be supporting each other like we do at every other tournament,” Carta said. “Whether that’s in Europe or in the United States or who knows where, we’re always going to be apart of the Duke family.” 

Coach knows best

The five players that are representing Duke at Augusta is tied for the most from a single university. And it’s no coincidence, either. Ask anyone who’s familiar with women’s amateur golf, and they’ll tell you that the excellence starts at the top. 

“It's really no surprise to see what Dan Brooks and Duke have done and continue to do,” Burkowski said. “It shows why he's regarded as one of the best if not greatest women's college golf coaches of all time.”

Throughout his illustrious 34-year coaching career at Duke, Brooks’ resume has included six NCAA championships, 20 ACC championships and 133 tournament titles, a Division I women’s golf record. His 1999 team’s national championship was the first ever championship for a women’s sport in Duke history. 

The sustained success of a Blue Devil program that he brought from the ground up is what has drawn the collective respect from across the entire sport. 

“This could have been 2001 or 2007 or 2019. There probably would have been five players that would be playing, whether they're incoming or on the current team,” said NBC Sports golf analyst and former top-ranked women’s amateur Paige Mackenzie, who joins Mike Tirico in the booth on Saturday. “It's been amazing to kind of see the longevity of this kind of run of great teams that he's put together.”

Brooks' success has a lot to do with the relationships that he is able to develop with his players. Through stellar recruiting and individualized coaching that adapts to his players’ needs, Brooks has found a recipe for greatness that ensures a strong team year after year, even with a smaller roster. “Quality over quantity,” as NBC Sports hole announcer Kay Cockerill describes—with a group of just six players and the same five representing Duke in every tournament this season, the Blue Devils remain comfortable at No. 3 in the latest national rankings.

The key is player development—Brooks seeks out four-year players who are willing to buy into the program, and it’s worked, as four current players are retained from last year’s squad. As only a freshman, Kim has already reaped the benefits of his mentorship, which she’s credited for her excellent play.

“Starting from last semester, my level of maturity has greatly increased. Coach Brooks was there by my side, helping me improve the mental side of my game,” Kim said. “He’s watched players for a long time, so he knows their tendencies and what happens when they’re under pressure. So him being able to share his experience and his knowledge with me really helped me a lot.”

No pressure, just business

In the booth: Tirico, former Monday Night Football commentator and current host of NBC’s Olympic coverage and Football Night in America

The audience: millions of viewers on national television, reporters and potential sponsors.

On the line: an automatic bid to the U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s British Open, as well as an invitation to the next five Augusta National Women’s Amateur events. 

But listening to some of the Blue Devils, you would have thought this was just another practice round at the Duke University Golf Club. As sophomore Jaravee Boonchant summed up, “It’s kind of cool. But every tournament has the ‘first time.’” 

Despite all the hype and publicity around this tournament, there is a sense of calm around the team. The Blue Devils were also on TV at the NCAA championships last season, where they learned to get accustomed to constant interviews and cameramen standing just feet away from their swings. With all the success that these athletes have had in their young careers, another big event doesn’t seem to be adding any more pressure. 

At the end of the day, it’s just golf. 

“I’ve played this game for 17 years, and I just want to do my best and not think about if it’s the biggest tournament of my life I’ve ever played in or just a random one-day tournament,” said junior Ana Belac. “I just want to give my best and play the golf that I’ve always played.”

Brooks isn’t too worried about his players, and he wants them to enjoy the experience while taking it slow. To him, this event is the best preparation for the upcoming NCAA tournament season he could have ever hoped for.

“We’ll talk about going into it with a lot of patience. Frankly I think the numbers are going to be fairly high, because it is what it is,” Brooks said. “It’s the golf course that people talk about the most, as far as the greens, the difficulty of the undulation of the greens. You will not be able to learn what you need to learn in one day.”

Boonchant echoed the sentiment, as she emphasized focusing on the present and playing hole-by-hole rather than concerning herself with the glamour. It’s clear that the players have embodied Brooks’ methodical and self-driven philosophy, blocking out much of the outside noise.

“Oh. Wow. I didn’t know!” she said after finding out about her No. 9 NCAA individual ranking on GolfStat.

Meanwhile, Carta’s been laughing off Twitter haters who have complained that she ought to be playing a professional event rather than this amateur one if she were truly good enough. And if that wasn’t good enough motivation to win, Kim has got hers ready.

“I did not do well in the putting section for the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, so I would like to get my revenge,” Kim said to laughs all around.

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