If history could repeat itself, then Father Time was not merciful toward the Blue Devils at the Big Four Challenge.
Featuring No. 5 Duke, No. 3 Wake Forest, N.C. State and North Carolina, Saturday’s match play tournament at the par-72 Lonnie Poole Golf Course in Raleigh, N.C., boiled down to a 2019 NCAA Championship rematch between Duke and Wake Forest. While the Blue Devils were able to narrowly secure their seventh national title with a 3-2 victory two years ago, they were on the opposite end of the score this time around. Despite the tough loss, senior Jaravee Boonchant was able to lead the Blue Devils to a dominant performance against N.C. State in the first round while securing a second head-to-head win against the Demon Deacons in the final round.
Coming off a sixth-place individual finish at the Valspar Augusta Invitational March 13-14, Boonchant—in her second tournament back after spending a full calendar year in her home country of Thailand—continued her strong performance in Duke’s first match against N.C. State. The three-time All-American made a statement from the first hole by collecting a birdie to start off 1-UP against the Wolfpack’s Natalie Armbruster. She would not lose this momentum through the remainder of the first nine holes, increasing her lead to 5-UP and eventually turning that into a 7&6 win.
“This morning, it was cold and I wasn’t feeling that great with my shots, so I tried to be conservative with them,” Boonchant said in regards to her first-round strategy. “This meant trying to hit as many greens as possible and playing it safely. It ended up working out pretty well.”
Where Boonchant really shined, however, was in her second matchup against Wake Forest’s ace Lauren Walsh, who is individually ranked 14th in the nation. Despite starting off one stroke behind Walsh, Boonchant quickly reversed the score to even with a par in the second hole. After a long even-stalemate with minimal changes to the lead, Boonchant sunk a 10-foot par putt on the 14th to retake a 1-UP lead. She went on to drain a birdie from 21-feet on her 16th and closed the match with a par on the 17th to secure a 3&1 win against Walsh.
“I was trying to play my own game and stayed focused throughout. I struck the hole whenever I had a chance and just was patient and tried to win the hole,” Boonchant said. “But [Wake Forest] is a very strong team and it was nice getting to compete against them, especially since we will be seeing them again at the ACC tournament and at nationals. It was a very good practice [for what’s to come].”
But it wasn’t just Boonchant who welcomed the fight against Wake Forest. Head coach Dan Brooks echoed Boonchant’s sentiments when they found out that they would be match-playing against their 2019 NCAA Championship final-round opponent.
“The energy of our team was excellent. Wake Forest is a really good team, but we have a fun and friendly rivalry going on with them—we just love to do battle with Wake [Forest],” Brooks said. “Our team had great energy going into this match and we just didn’t come out on top despite giving a hard fight.”
Brooks went on to highlight the games of several Blue Devils from throughout the tournament. Besides Boonchant’s “veteran experience,” junior Gina Kim’s “strong mentality” and sophomore Erica Shepherd’s swing adjustments were all factors that helped the Blue Devils put up a strong fight.
“Even though we lost, I saw all the girls fighting through and playing solid golf. I think it was a very good practice and experience for the postseason so I am very looking forward to that,” Boonchant said. “I am confident that we will do well at the ACC tournament and at nationals.”
The Blue Devils will play one more regular-season tournament as a team April 6-7 in Charlottesville, Va., for the Cavalier Match Play, but prior to that event, Boonchant, Kim and Shepherd will compete in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur held March 31-April 3 in Augusta, Ga.
Duke will compete in the ACC Championships April 15-18 in Greensboro, N.C.
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