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As pandemic sidelines Duke women's golf, Blue Devils turn to freshmen and... pool noodles?

<p>Senior Jaravee Boonchant is one of two remaining national champions for Duke. She'll stay in Thailand—nearly 15,000 miles away from Duke—for the fall semester due to COVID-19.</p>

Senior Jaravee Boonchant is one of two remaining national champions for Duke. She'll stay in Thailand—nearly 15,000 miles away from Duke—for the fall semester due to COVID-19.

After the COVID-19 pandemic cut last season short, Duke women's golf can still call itself national champions. 

But this year's roster includes only two of the six members of that title-winning squad. To make matters worse, the remaining members—senior Jaravee Boonchant and junior Gina Kim—can’t live at Duke this semester, per President Price’s decree. The highest-ranked Blue Devil, Boonchant, will stay in her native Thailand to play LPGA tournaments there.

Kim suffered a far crueler fate. She has been forced to reside in her native Chapel Hill and commute to Durham for practice. There won’t be college golf this fall, so that will be the extent of Kim’s involvement with the team this semester.

A team of national champions—minus most of the champions—enters the 2020-21 season as uncertain as any in the country. Thankfully, head coach Dan Brooks can rely on the squad’s two youngest members to blend in quickly.

Incoming freshmen Phoebe Brinker and Anne Chen, respectively ranked the 26th- and 21st-best golfers in their class by the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), seem to fit the mold of Blue Devil golf. Brinker and Florida State recruit Taylor Roberts organized the inaugural Senior Cup: a last hurrah of sorts for the nation’s top junior golfers, conceived from the idea that the majority of these athletes had their senior seasons cut short due to the pandemic.

Brinker and her team, which included Chen, fell short to Roberts July 21-22 on the Parkland, Fla., golf course. However, the tournament raised over $40,000 for the Emergency Golf Relief Fund and a grant for junior golfers.

“It was such a great way to end [my high school career],” Brinker said. “It was so rewarding to see all the months of hard work we did paid off. People were saying it was the most fun they’ve had all summer, and we raised so much money for charity.”

Duke women's golf has a history of philanthropy. Virginia Elena Carta, the team’s most recent individual champion, started Birdies for Babies in 2017. The charity raised more than $10,000 for Duke Children’s and Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care units that year and raised more than $20,000 in each of the next two seasons.

Brinker and Chen aren’t at all cookie cutter Blue Devils, though.

“I always use the same ball marker,” Brinker said. “I’ve been using it for three years now, and I haven’t lost it yet.”

Chen has her quirks, too.

“If I play badly [in an outfit], I can’t wear that outfit again,” Chen said. “It’s a temporary [ban] just for the tournament. And in the morning, I won’t eat dry food. I’ll eat cereal or fruit."

Chen’s weird outfit rule may come into play when she finally tees off for Duke in the spring. Things were already weird at the Senior Cup, though. 

The Parkland Golf and Country Club took measures to prevent golfers from spreading COVID-19. Competitors rode their own carts and wore masks in public spaces, while holes were stuffed with pool noodles.

“It feels kind of…not right,” Chen said.

While it might sound odd, the pool noodle method has become commonplace in golf courses around the country. The spongey material is inserted into the hole so balls pop out, preventing golfers from having to reach into the hole for their ball.

“It was a problem,” Brinker said. “People would putt and it would hit the pin and bounce out. They were like, can you count this shot as in or out?”

While those are certainly challenging questions, Brinker and Chen will face tougher ones very soon. Before college sports ground to a halt in mid-March, Duke was the No. 4 team in the nation and still had five players from the 2019 title year.

Without upperclassmen on campus and stars like Carta and Ana Belac, who was the third-ranked women's golfer in the NCAA, Brinker and Chen take on more responsibility for Duke than freshmen usually do. The Blue Devils have a reputation to uphold—Dan Brooks' program has won seven NCAA titles in 21 years. A championship seems to be the only acceptable ending to a season's story.

But that shouldn't be so hard, right? Brinker was one of the most highly-touted recruits in the country. Before the Senior Cup, she was ranked the No. 7 junior player by the AJGA, previously spending time in the top-5 as well. She made the 2019 Rolex Junior All-America Girls First Team. Both Brinker and Chen committed to Duke in their sophomore years. And although they haven't known one another for very long, they'll be seeing a lot more of each other very soon.

“I love [Chen],” Brinker said. “She is one of my best friends from junior golf, and we’re going to be rooming together. We’re definitely friends before competitors.”

It’s lonely at the top. It's even more so during a pandemic. But with the infusion of Brinker and Chen, perhaps Duke women's golf won't be quite so lonesome.

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