Three years ago to the day, Virginia Elena Carta stunned the collegiate golf world with a title run that was nothing short of a miracle.
And Wednesday, Carta returned to the podium, this time with her teammates, as the Blue Devils beat Wake Forest to win the national championship.
Although Carta put up solid numbers throughout the 2015 season—earning five top-10 finishes throughout the regular season—the Udine, Italy, native struggled to consistently find a spot on the podium. Yet on the biggest stage of her freshman year at Duke, Carta blew the nation away with an absolutely dominant performance that seemingly came out of nowhere.
The young Blue Devil finished the event with a record-setting 16-under-par hitting at 272, cruising to an individual title by a mammoth eight-stroke margin.
Yet, despite the fanfare of a fairytale freshman year, Carta struggled through injury and inconsistency through the next three years of her Duke career, falling short of bringing home hardware again and again. But when her team needed her most to outlast Arizona and Stanford in the Blue Devils' 2019 run, the senior delivered to set the stage for Duke to make its decisive run in the grand finals and earn its seventh national title.
"It has been a dream of mine since freshman year to win it as a team, and obviously to do it my senior year, to close out my college career, it's something very special to me," Carta said. "Definitely, it's a big win after a dry period, yes. But it couldn't get anymore special than a win with the whole team, and knowing that we really had each other's back until the very end."
The dry period
Indeed, Carta's road to her second national title was anything but perfect. Injuries and illness plagued the young Blue Devil through her sophomore and junior year, making her historic tournament performance seem more a flash in the pan than a standard for the future.
In her second year at Duke, Carta notched just two top-10 finishes and one top-5 mark throughout the regular season, hitting at a 73.39 stroke average—nearly a full stroke higher than her previous season. Junior year was an even greater struggle, with the injury bug limiting the Italian Blue Devil to just eight tournament appearances through the spring.
However, despite the adversity, Carta remained poised as a vocal leader on the sidelines for her younger teammates and even showed flashes of her previous form, finishing at an even par for fifth place in the 2018 ACC tournament.
"If Virginia is able to take care of business, she's a great cheerleader, even though she's from Italy and they don't know what cheerleaders are," Duke head coach Dan Brooks said of Carta's contributions on and off the green. "She's somebody you want to [have], and also, I had the idea in my mind that everyone is following Virginia."
Never out of it
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Of course, Carta's role on the team extends far beyond sideline motivation. After finally leaving the injury struggles behind her and putting up consistent numbers through the season, the senior showed up as a consistent anchor for the team on the Blue Devils' road to the title stage.
Tied 2-2 against the Cardinal in the tournament quarterfinals, Carta battled through a back-and-forth affair against Ziyi Wang deep into extra frames. With her final season on the line, the Italian Blue Devil calmly sank a six-foot birdie putt on the 24th to send Duke to the semifinals against the Wildcats.
In yet another match that came down to the wire, Carta was instrumental in the Blue Devils' 3-2 victory against Arizona with a cool 2&1 win versus Sandra Nordaas to kick off Duke's scoring. And although the Blue Devil senior didn't end with an individual win in her final collegiate match, Carta's contributions paved the way for her team's success.
"We knew it was going to be a very long day because it was not just the semifinals," Carta said. "We were hoping obviously to get into the final, as well, so we talked a lot with the team about being patient and just doing our own thing and cheering each other on, and that's exactly what we did, and not only we won in the semifinals, but we sat at lunch and talked almost about forgetting the semifinals and having the mind ready to go for the next match, which was more important, and the last one, and just putting all we got into that.
"We were tired. I mean, a lot of golf played in a few days, but we did it. We stayed patient and we believe in each other."
Passing on the torch
In many ways, Carta's career at Duke comes full circle from where she began.
As a freshman, she entered a talented but young squad that dodged back-to-back nail biters only to ultimately fall in the semifinals. And although Carta's individual performance warranted first-place hardware, she wasn't able to share that feeling of victory with her teammates.
Cut to four years later and Carta is now the leader of a young but talented squad of Blue Devils, where not just her heroics, but those of the likes of freshman Gina Kim and redshirt sophomore Miranda Wang propelled Duke to the end. And Carta will leave this championship-caliber roster as the lone senior, providing the same leadership and guidance to her younger teammates as the likes of alumni Celine Boutier and Sandy Choi gave to her so many years ago.
"I watched the shots on the course and I was impressed and that kept me going and never lost hope," Carta said. "It's a special team, and cheering this big thing with the team has been so much fun. We'll remember forever and the memories will never go away."
Through her college career, Carta started at the highest peak only to fall in disappointing fashion year in and year out. But through it all, the lone senior showed poise and leadership through her final hurrah up to the very last putt of her collegiate career. Fittingly, Carta holds the rare honor of closing her collegiate career as she started: a champion.