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Duke women’s golf heads to Arkansas with sights on seventh NCAA championship

Virginia Elena Carta hopes to end her career on a high note at the NCAA championship.
Virginia Elena Carta hopes to end her career on a high note at the NCAA championship.

After falling in the quarterfinals of match play in last year’s NCAA championship, the Blue Devils are looking for redemption.

But in order to do so in their quest for seven, they’ll have to compete in unfamiliar territory. 

No. 3 Duke will travel to the Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., for the first time ever to play in the NCAA championship from May 17-22. After a practice round Thursday, the team will tee off Friday afternoon with a five-person lineup of senior Virginia Elena Carta, junior Ana Belac, sophomore Jaravee Boonchant, sophomore Miranda Wang and freshman Gina Kim, as it has all season. 

“I really enjoy this group. They’re a lot of fun,” Blue Devil head coach Dan Brooks said. “Sometimes you go, you’re very talented, but you’re maybe not pulled together. This team is a talented team that’s also united.”

Duke has become a regular in the NCAA championship, as this will be its 31st in school history. Its six titles are the most for any NCAA women’s golf program. Still, nobody on the current squad has experienced the championship feeling, as the most recent victory came in 2014. 

“I think they’re excited,” Brooks said. “They don’t really go through life with that all-business attitude. They’re a pretty fun-loving group, and that happens to be a great mentality to have for golf.”

The Blue Devils qualified for the NCAA championship by placing third in last week’s Auburn regional tournament from May 5-8. The top six teams from each regional tournament advanced, comprising this week’s 24-team field. The field includes familiar ACC opponents such as No. 9 Florida State, which defeated Duke at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, as well as No. 2 Wake Forest, which stole the show at the ACC Championships with an eight-stroke victory. In order to put up their best effort, the Blue Devils have been getting accustomed to the bent grass that the NCAA championship will be played on. 

“The number one thing is to get back on bent [grass], because we played a tournament on Bermuda [grass],” Brooks said. “You can’t be on bent greens enough when you’re about to play the championship on bent. You have to just get on it—it’s a very different animal than the Bermuda greens.”

After 54 holes of qualifying stroke play across the first three days, the top 15 teams will play 18 more holes to determine the top eight teams that reach match play. The fifth day will be a 36-hole day of match play before the match play championship on May 22. With the typical tournament lasting three days, the potential extended schedule will be a shift from the norm, but Brooks doesn’t see it as an issue. 

“I think by the time you’re in that match play, you’re so pumped and ready to play that I think that 36-hole match play day is handled pretty well,” Brooks said. “I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that’s going to be devastatingly tiring so that the next day you’re not ready to play.”

Duke will feature four golfers ranked in the top 50, with Boonchant leading the way at No. 9, Belac at No. 29, Carta at No. 43 and Kim at No. 49. While the others have all been through this NCAA championship experience before, with Carta finding success as the 2016 NCAA Individual Champion, Kim will be on this stage for the first time in her collegiate career. Coach Brooks has some easy advice for her.

“If you go in with the idea that you didn’t do quite enough or that there's more work that could’ve been done, then you’re not going to relax and play the best that you can. It truly is ‘play’ that you have to do.You have to enjoy yourself out there.”

Jake Satisky contributed reporting.

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