A third-place finish at the season-opening Palmetto Intercollegiate last week left the Blue Devils searching for more. Well, it seems like they found some this past Monday through Wednesday at the Gamecock Intercollegiate.
Thanks to 46 combined birdies, No. 8 Duke picked up its first team victory of the season with an even-par total, three strokes ahead of second place. The Blue Devils led after the first round, trailed by a single stroke after the second and finished with a final round 291 total to take home the title at Columbia Country Club in Columbia, S.C.
Sitting just behind Duke on the leaderboard was No. 2 Wake Forest, the team that figures to be the Blue Devils' most pressing competition for the ACC and maybe even NCAA crown. Just over a week ago, Wake Forest topped Duke by 29 shots en route to a dominant win at Kiawah Island. But the Blue Devils bounced back for a victory of their own this time around, showing just how much of a battle it will be between these two loaded rosters this season.
“I think the thing I was most impressed by is how undaunted the team was by the first tournament,” head coach Dan Brooks said. “It never felt like they were much affected by finishing third and 29 shots back and all that. It just seems like they had a good feel for the nature of the game and the fact that it was our first event.”
Once again, Duke was led by Erica Shepherd, who captured the individual title by three shots over South Carolina's Lois Kaye Go. Shepherd was the only player in the entire field to finish all three rounds under par, ending up at seven-under 209 to secure her first collegiate win.
After hovering near the lead for the first 27 holes, Shepherd struck gold on her ensuing 15 to take command of the tournament, as eight birdies matched against just a single bogey vaulted the sophomore into first place. When play was suspended Tuesday due to darkness, Shepherd held a three-shot lead going into the final day of play.
“I was definitely in a zone during that time,” Shepherd said. “So that was later in the afternoon that day, that morning, the weather conditions were pretty brutal, it felt like 35 degrees, windy, the air was just cold. By that point in the afternoon when I finally got to shed a layer I was just happy to not be freezing. The golf just kind of came, I got a few putts rolling and then once you see the putts go in, after a while you just have confidence that you can make anything.”
A birdie on the 323-yard 13th Wednesday stretched Shepherd's lead even further, giving her the cushion to afford a double bogey on the par-three 14th. Once her final putt dropped, the emotional weight of her first victory as a Blue Devil began to set it.
“Honestly I had about five seconds to think and kind of soak it in before I got drenched with water—my teammates ran onto the green and poured a ton of water on me,” Shepherd said. “That was kind of bittersweet, and then obviously I saw my fellow sophomore [Megan Furtney], she was crying, looked over at my parents and they were crying, so I was just overwhelmed with emotion and I was just super happy in the moment to be surrounded by people that have supported me for the longest [time].”
Not far behind Shepherd was freshman Phoebe Brinker at two-under. In just her second collegiate tournament, the Delaware native opened with three-under 69 and then hung on the rest of the way to finish in a tie for third. Brinker has been thrown into the fire without the benefit of a fall NCAA season, so any top-tier finishes are a bonus as of right now.
“I try to control my expectation of freshmen. You just don’t know what [their] freshman year is going to be like, especially during COVID,” Brooks said. “I just don’t have a lot of scoring expectations. I just want them to feel comfortable.”
One jarring aspect of the tournament for Duke was the fact that junior Gina Kim, a key facet of the program’s national championship back in 2019, struggled mightily after a first-round 70. Kim carded four double bogeys over her final 30 holes to end up in a tie for 51st, so it will be interesting to see whether the Chapel Hill native can put that level of volatility behind her.
Next, Duke is scheduled to tee it up in the Valspar Augusta Invitational, which runs from March 13-14.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.