Right down the road from the most famous golf course in the world, Duke women’s golf was part of a battle that would have made the Augusta National gods proud.
Over the weekend at the Valspar Augusta Invitational, the now-fifth-ranked Blue Devils took advantage of favorable scoring conditions en route to a runner-up finish to now-No. 1 South Carolina. Forest Hills Golf Club, an exacting par-72 layout, proved to be no match for a Duke squad that has been rolling in recent weeks. While the Blue Devils did not cap off the weekend with a victory, there were many positives to take away from the 54-hole shootout, particularly the performance turned in by the youngest member of the team.
Phoebe Brinker, in just her third collegiate event, continued her eye-opening improvement with a second-place finish at 10-under. The freshman had placed in a tie for 35th and a tie for 3rd in her first two events as a Blue Devil, so this was just another step forward in what has been a praiseworthy start to her college career.
“I feel like I’ve definitely gained a lot of confidence leading up to this week,” Brinker said. “I mean, we didn’t have a fall season, so this is my first season ever playing in college. So, I had goals, but I didn’t really have too high expectations, just because it’s such a big transition.”
Brinker was all systems go from the opening tee, as a birdie to get things rolling in round one served as a preview of what was to come. The Delaware native notched four straight circles from holes five through eight, with the fifth coming on the longest par-4 on the entire course. All in all, Brinker fired a 64 in the opening round, setting the lowest 18-hole score by a freshman in Duke women’s golf history.
“Everything clicked. I just hit a bunch of fairways, hit a ton of greens, and I was just making putts from everywhere, it was definitely incredible,” Brinker said. “I’ve never played a round that well, it just seemed like everything I had practiced and all my hard work actually paid off… just to put myself in contention all weekend was definitely cool.”
Despite holding a one-stroke cushion after the first round, Brinker remained focused on her own game and did not consume herself with leaderboard watching. The headliner of the final 36 holes was Pauline Roussin-Bouchard of South Carolina—who blitzed the Forest Hills track in the final two rounds to take home a five-shot victory—but Brinker quietly plodded her way around the course to post consecutive 71s for the fifth-lowest 54-hole score ever by a Duke freshman.
“I don’t really get as motivated if other people are playing better, I kind of just do the best that I can,” Brinker said on her mentality when she’s near or in the lead in an event. “Of course, everyone’s mentality works a little bit differently…it actually paid off for me that I didn’t watch the leaderboard, I was just kind of trying to do the best I can, trying to get as many birdies as I possibly could.”
Brinker wasn’t the only Blue Devil on a hot streak down in Georgia. Senior Jaravee Boonchant, in her first tournament since returning from Thailand, ended in a tie for sixth at eight-under alongside junior Gina Kim. It was truly a balanced display of golf, and it nearly ended in a victory for Duke.
Through the first 36 holes, the Blue Devils were on a record pace, reaching 25-under. The 551 mark after two rounds marked the lowest in program history, as every Duke player was under par once Saturday’s portion of the event came to a close. Taking it low was not something the Blue Devils were used to in practice sessions during the rainy and cold portions of the Durham winter, so it’s certainly encouraging that Duke pounced in some comfortable weather.
“When the golf is that good, and the contribution is that good, I mean we got contributions from everybody on the team,” head coach Dan Brooks said. “We’re coming out of a muddy winter where I knew we were training well and we were playing hard, but our numbers were kind of winter numbers. And then when you finally have an opportunity to get in scoring conditions…you’re a little concerned that maybe you’ve been conditioned by the higher scores because of the bad conditions.”
The Blue Devils don’t have to travel as far for their next event, as The Big Four Challenge with N.C. State, North Carolina and Wake Forest gets started March 20 in Raleigh.
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