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Duke men's golf secures spot in NCAA championship with 2nd-place finish in Athens regional

Alex Smalley looks to cap his storied Duke career with a strong performance at the NCAA championship.
Alex Smalley looks to cap his storied Duke career with a strong performance at the NCAA championship.

For the fourth time since 2015 and the third year in a row, the Blue Devils will tee off at the final weekend of the season. 

Second-seeded Duke advanced to the NCAA championship Wednesday after finishing second in the Athens regional behind the region’s host, Georgia. The Bulldogs pulled ahead to win on their home course by seven strokes, but the Blue Devils still had plenty of room to breathe after an impressive second round across the board from all five team members on Tuesday. 

Alex Smalley and Chandler Eaton posted identical scores for the Blue Devils in each round of the tournament, going 72-69-71 each to finish in a tie for seventh place in the individual competition and pace Duke. Evan Katz shot a 71 on the final day of the tournament to sneak into the top ten as well, finishing tied for tenth with teammate Steven Dilisio. 

“After that really solid second round we sort of spaced out a bit from that cut line, but that being said you can’t just nail it in and the guys know that,” Blue Devils head coach Jamie Green said. “We didn’t really talk about winning the regional necessarily—the focus was really just playing another solid round of golf. Having five guys really put together solid tournaments is a good confidence builder going into nationals.”

Despite coming up short of the regional title, Duke has a lot to be pleased about heading into the final weekend of the season. The Blue Devils were one of just two teams—along with Texas—across the entire NCAA to have all five golfers finish in the top 30 of the individual leaderboards of their respective regions. 

The feat was especially impressive given the difficult nature of the Athens course, whose sloping greens and tricky hole locations made it one of the more challenging regional courses. Liberty shot 18 over par to snag the fifth and final spot to advance out of the region—in comparison, in the Pullman, Wa., region all but two out of 15 teams finished under par. 

“The slopes of the greens and the hole locations on the edges of some of those slopes [made the course] one where being able to scramble and get it up and down was going to be a premium. So I think for us to stay in that top [ranked] group playing with really high quality players that sort of probably helped us on the mindset,” Green said. “And quite frankly they can say the same thing about playing with Duke. We’ve got some pretty strong players so I think it was probably a good thing for those three teams to be able to feed off each other a little bit.”

For Smalley, this coming weekend marks his final chance to leave an exclamation point on his extraordinary career. The senior from Wake Forest, N.C., has his name written across team record books thanks to an unmatched level of consistency that has him on pace to lock down the program's best career scoring average, as well as break the program’s season scoring record he set last year. 

“Alex is undoubtedly one of the best players in the country and probably going to make a career of this game. One of the marks of I’ve seen guys that are in that first and second team All American category is they just don’t have bad weeks. They just find a way to score. And if you look at his finishes, it’s not like he’s just on autopilot. He’s putting up those top finishes even on weeks he isn’t hitting his best, and I think this tournament that was probably the case,” Green said. “I know he probably was working through some things in his golf swing, and he didn’t play terrible golf he played terrific golf. That’s the mark of a really good player.”

The NCAA Championship will be held this weekend at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., and run through next Wednesday. Coincidentally, Blessings was originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., whose father and brother are responsible for the design and redesign, respectively, of the Duke University Golf Club. The Blue Devils are one of five ACC schools advancing to the final weekend, including ACC Champion Georgia Tech, and are looking to advance past the semifinals after being swept out in the penultimate round last year by Alabama. The tournament will tee off Saturday morning, with an individual champion crowned on Monday and a team champion on Wednesday.

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