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'Kind of like taking out your point guard': Duke men's golf struggles in Evan Katz's absence

With star senior Evan Katz missing the tournament after having knee surgery, the Blue Devils struggled to keep up with the top competition in Tallahassee, Fla.
With star senior Evan Katz missing the tournament after having knee surgery, the Blue Devils struggled to keep up with the top competition in Tallahassee, Fla.

Duke suffered a setback in an otherwise smooth-sailing season this week, placing 12th out of 15 teams in the Seminole Intercollegiate this past weekend in Tallahassee, Fla. The lackluster finish came on the heels of fourth and second-place finishes in previous tournaments.

However, one missing ingredient was key to the disappointing performance.

“Evan Katz, an All-American last year...just had knee surgery, so not having him in the lineup obviously impacts us a bit scoring-wise,” head coach Jamie Green said.  “Kind of like taking out your point guard of a basketball offense.”

The senior has had a productive year, including a top-10 finish at the season-opening Camp Creek Seminole Invitational, before undergoing surgery to remove a bone fragment out of a tendon in his knee, putting him out of commission for this past tournament.

In terms of the upperclassmen that did compete for the Blue Devils this week, senior Adrien Pendaries finished tied for 39th, while graduate student Steven DiLisio tied for 69th. The lack of galvanizing performances from the older golfers was an issue this week for the squad and didn’t go unnoticed by Green. 

“Adrien and Steven just played all right. I think from an elder perspective, I’d like to see them lead the way a little bit better,” Green said. “But certainly nothing to take away from our freshmen. We’ve had great productivity from Ian Siebers and Jimmy Zheng, both of whom finished right around 20th in the tournament, which was very top heavy. I mean we had some very good teams there in the field.” 

With the veterans struggling, freshmen Jimmy Zheng and Ian Siebers had the opportunity to stand out, leading the team with a tie for 19th and 21st place, respectively. Fellow freshman Cameron Martinez-Piedra rounded out Duke’s scoring at 85th. 

Overall, the team’s 12th place finish was the worst so far this season, and the strength of the field might partially explain the result. Numerous college golf powerhouses were in attendance in Tallahassee, including No. 1 Oklahoma, now-No. 3 Florida State and now-No. 12 Oklahoma State. Duke entered the weekend at No. 18 but fell to No. 32 in the new rankings Monday.

However, the strong field was not the only reason the Blue Devils found themselves struggling. An intense desire to win can sometimes be counterproductive to achieving the desired results, with Green indicating that this had a role in Duke’s play. 

“The fact of the matter is, our guys care a bunch,” Green said. “They’re really invested, and sometimes that extra effort can turn into self-inflicted pressure. I think we have a little bit of that going on. Our guys are really trying to do their best, but sometimes you can almost try a little bit too hard. We sort of need to take a step back and just focus on what are the basics we need to get done in order for the score to be acceptable.”

The mental game is a huge part of golf, and the Blue Devils seem to be especially struggling in the part of the sport that is played between the ears. Their next chance to right the ship will be the Wake Forest Invitational March 1-2 at the legendary Pinehurst No. 2 course. If there’s any course meant to test the mental fortitude of golfers, it’s that layout in Pinehurst, N.C., which has hosted numerous pro tournaments including the 2014 U.S. Open. 

Green has a clear strategy for approaching the challenge, however.

“You just have to break it down like it’s an individual course,” Green said. That place is certainly very unique in that you don’t want to get yourself in a bind off the tee. So as long as you’re in position and not having to scramble coming into the green, you should be all right. Then obviously the next step is putting the ball in the center of the green if possible—they turned that golf course into a place where you really, no matter where the hole is located, you really just want to kind of hit it in the middle of the green. If you can control your golf ball from tee to green you can be successful there.”

If the Blue Devils can focus on these areas and make some gains in the mental game, they should be able to get back on track as the season begins to hit its stride.

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