Just over a month after visiting the Saugahatchee Country Club, the Blue Devils found themselves back in Opelika, Ala. this week for a second time. But rather than the Evans Derby Experience, Duke was now playing with a trip to the NCAA championship on the line.
A 4-over-par three-day total of 868 was a six-stroke improvement from Evans Derby, in which Duke placed second, but only good for a third-place finish this past week with the stiffer playoff competition. No. 2 seed Vanderbilt and No. 3 seed Florida carded 860 and 863, respectively, by going 8-under-par and 5-under-par on the final day to claim the top two spots. The Blue Devils had been leading up to that point, going 1-over-par over the first two days, but a 3-over-par Day Three proved to be the difference.
Needing to finish in the top six of the 18-team field at the Auburn regional to advance, the top-seeded Blue Devils did just that. Duke earned a spot in the NCAA championship, which will be from May 17-22 at the Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark.
“We didn’t play poorly that last day, they just played great,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said. “We played pretty much what we had done the two days before. And shooting around even on that course is good golf—plenty of hills and lots of undulation.”
The Blue Devils got off to a slow start on the first day, with nine bogeys on the first seven holes compared to just two birdies. Junior Ana Belac started off 3-over-par on the front nine, but rattled off three birdies in the back nine for an even-par 72 to lead the them after 18 holes, along with sophomore Jaravee Boonchant. Four Day One birdies from sophomore Miranda Wang and two from freshman Gina Kim gave them cards of 73, while senior Virginia Elena Carta had three bogeys for a 3-over 75.
“I saw very promising things from the group,” Brooks said. “They showed some toughness on the back side, particularly on that first day, and that’s always nice to see. Because the game can get you down and sometimes when it gets you down early you don’t get back up unless you’ve got some internal toughness, and they really fought hard.”
The success on the back nine was a theme throughout, as the team totaled seven more birdies there on Day Two for a 1-under 287 to jump into first place. Kim had the best second day at 2-under, while three straight bogeys to start the back nine for Wang put her at 3-over-par for the day. Boonchant came in at 71, and Belac and Carta both scored a 73.
The final day did not start out well, as eight bogeys from holes two through seven plagued the squad. In particular, Belac struggled with eight bogeys on the day, carding a 6-over 78. Five bogeys each from Carta and Wang brought their scores up as well, but birdies down the stretch ensured a Day Three 75 for both of them. Meanwhile, Boonchant and Kim were the most solid at 70 and 71, respectively, with Boonchant playing bogey-free up until the 18th hole. Seven birdies in the last five holes for Duke helped secure a top-three finish overall.
“Good players—you sort of know that if they got off to a rough start, they’ll very frequently come back and right the ship. That’s just sort of the makeup of a really good player,” Brooks said. “I very seldom see good players get down and stay all the way down.”
At 3-under-par, the No. 4-ranked Boonchant finished tied for third place to lead the Blue Devils, while Kim was right behind her in sixth at 2-under-par. The rest of the team found themselves down the leaderboard, with Belac, Carta and Wang all tied for 41st overall at 7-over-par. Brought down by her subpar final day, Belac placed the lowest at NCAA regionals in her collegiate career, as she had finished in the top 11 her previous two years.
“We’ve been playing with everybody in a pretty tight pack, so there’s a little more separation there between those two and the other three than we’ve been seeing this year,” Brooks said. “But I’m not concerned about the gap. I think they’re all capable of playing some great golf. We’ve got four or five days now before Nationals, and I think we can just brush up on some short game stuff.”
This will be the 31st time in school history that the Blue Devils play at the NCAA championship, where the field consists of 24 schools. With the school year over, Brooks is looking forward to more time on the practice field in order to get accustomed to the bent grass greens of the Blessings Golf Club.
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“The one thing we need to do is get adjusted off of Bermuda [grass] and back onto bent [grass], because we just played on Bermuda there and they’re very different,” Brooks said. “The ball actually curves quite differently on bent versus Bermuda—got to get your imagination wrapped around a whole different surface.”