GREENSBORO, N.C.—Gina Kim calmly took her putter back, stroked her short par putt and then let out a shriek of joy when the ball found its way into the bottom of the cup. Duke had officially clinched the ACC Championship in dominant fashion, just two days after Kim took home the individual conference crown.
Thanks to steady ballstriking and clutch putting across the board, the Blue Devils brought home their sixth conference title in the last nine years and 22nd in program history. Sunday’s match play finals featured No. 1 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Florida State, and despite the Seminoles defeating No. 2 seed Wake Forest 4-1 in the Saturday semifinals, the Blue Devils were not going to be denied, sweeping all five matches with Florida State to secure top-dog status in one of the toughest conferences in the land.
“It feels great. It feels a little bit like we won twice, because of the stroke play and then the match play, so it was just really cool.... It was a little bit of an experiment going [with] match play and us coaches got together and decided to do this," Duke head coach Dan Brooks said of the rule change to introduce match play to the ACC Championship. "I think it’s a really great addition and it feels a lot like nationals."
Sedgefield Country Club hosted its 10th ACC Championship, and for good reason. The demanding track in Greensboro presented elevation changes, firm greens and challenging pin positions Sunday, making the victory that much more rewarding for Duke.
“I think we attacked it a little better every day, and that’s the mark of a great golf course,” Brooks said. “The ball can just run away, you hit a great chip and you’re 20 feet away, even you make a putt sometimes and you’re 10 feet away and you thought, ‘Man I swear that was gonna go in.’ They made the pins tougher today, but I applaud the rules officials for not making anything unfair.”
The first two matches out of the gate went in Duke’s favor. Freshman Phoebe Brinker and senior Jaravee Boonchant came out firing, as the Blue Devils’ version of the “Killer B's” were both ahead 3-UP at the turn and never looked back. Brinker and Boonchant were able to watch their teammates close it out for much of the back nine, as the duo posted 5&4 and 6&5 victories, respectively.
While the leaderboard was littered with blue for the majority of the day, things tightened up in the early portion of the back nine for Kim and Erica Shepherd, both of whom had built 3-UP leads of their own. Kim, who was set up to seal the deal for the Blue Devils after Brinker and Boonchant put two wins on the board, held a 3-UP lead through 12 holes over Beatrice Wallin. In a flash, though, the junior’s lead was cut to a single hole, and standing on the 15th tee, Kim had to steer herself back into control.
“I’ve worked on this ever since I came into college, but your past results don’t really define what you’re gonna do moving forward,” Kim said. “So, I just tried to keep that in mind, stay aware of it and just restart.”
Two swings later, the No. 16 individual in the country was comfortably in the heart of the green on the par-five, seizing back command of her match with a birdie to win the hole. On the 16th hole, a sensible iron shot from Kim yielded a two-putt par to defeat Beatrice Wallin 3&2, securing the championship.
Shepherd, who saw her lead evaporate around the turn thanks in part to Florida State's Alice Hodge draining it from the fairway twice, went par-birdie on the final two holes to wrap up her win. Shepherd was her usual steady self from tee to green, going bogey free over her last 14 holes.
For an added bonus, Anne Chen embarked on a dramatic comeback despite facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit. Chen found herself 4-DOWN to Charlotte Heath on the 14th tee, but the freshman rattled off a 2-under run over her final five holes to steal the match.
Spurred by Kim’s 10-under 206 in the stroke-play portion Thursday and Friday, the Blue Devils captured the top seed for match play. Friday’s action featured multiple shifts between Duke and Wake Forest on the leaderboard, but in the latter stages, the Blue Devils eventually pulled ahead of their in-state counterparts thanks to an eagle by Kim on the par-five 15th and three late birdies by Shepherd.
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Kim cruised her way to the individual title, shooting rounds of 68, 69 and 69 for a three-stroke advantage over Wallin of Florida State. The Chapel Hill native took care of the par-fives throughout the first two days, going 10-under in 12 opportunities.
“I would say my putting,” Kim said regarding which part of her game helped her the most at Sedgefield. “My putting really saved me out here, these greens are pretty treacherous and the pin locations—where they put them—[made it] even more difficult. I think I was really creative in how I played the breaks and how I played the putts, and I think also I just got a little lucky that a lot of them went in.”
Saturday’s semifinal matchup pitted the Blue Devils against No. 4 seed Virginia. In the early going, it appeared to be smooth sailing for Duke, as the putts were falling on Sedgefield’s slick greens on the front nine. However, Virginia would not go away, as Brinker, Boonchant and Shepherd all fell behind at various points of the round. Eventually, Duke did enough to secure a spot in the finals, as Brinker, Chen and Kim picked up 4&2, 5&3 and 3&2 wins, respectively.
The Blue Devils now have a fairly long break before the next step of the postseason, as the NCAA Regional Championship starts May 10.