SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.—In a 36-hole Scottsdale Showdown, the Blue Devils sent their fellow Devils home in the morning. But the afternoon edition of this Wild West battle was ultimately won by a crafty group of Cowgirls.
While No. 2-seed Duke knocked off No. 7-seed Arizona State 3-1-1 in the quarterfinals at the NCAA Championship Tuesday, the Blue Devils fell 5-0-0 to No. 3-seed Oklahoma State in the afternoon semifinals.
"We didn't need to get this far for me to know how good they are," Blue Devil head coach Dan Brooks said. "We could go out and have this championship, this match play day, again, and it might go a different direction and we might win them both. Hats off to Oklahoma State though, they played some great golf, that match was really something."
After Oklahoma State’s Maja Stark knocked off Gina Kim 4&3 and Isabella Fierro pulled off a 2&1 victory over Erica Shepherd, the Cowgirls were just a point away from advancing to the match play finals.
As things were beginning to look dire for the Blue Devils, fans were congregating around the 17th green, with Anne Chen attempting to complete a furious rally from 2-DOWN with just two holes remaining. The freshman rolled in a birdie putt, to the delight of her teammates, to claw to just one hole back and seemingly extend Duke’s hopes for a little longer.
But just when Chen was flying to the 18th tee, a loud cheer erupted from the 16th green and the news was radioed in to 17—Phoebe Brinker had just lost 3&2 to Rina Tatematsu of Oklahoma State, ending the Blue Devils’ title defense.
Put simply, Duke just did not make enough putts in the afternoon to advance to the finals. The pins were in spots that required extreme precision to get iron shots close, an endeavor made more challenging by the presence of more wind than the morning. Plus, the severe undulation on the greens made matching the line and speed with the putter a tall task.
"You can always pick out shots that weren't great or putts that weren't great," Brooks said. "A lot of times, the reason those things aren't dropping is because they're feeling pressure, and that's from the quality of golf that they're playing against. And I think that's what we ran into."
Looking for a tone setter out of the gate, Brooks turned to Kim against Stark in the first match out after lunch. Kim, never one to shy away from a challenge, had her hands full with the No. 7 amateur in the world, and the North Carolina native went bogey-par to Stark’s par-birdie to fall two behind walking off the second green.
Not to be outdone that quickly, Kim would continuously claw her way to within a hole, unleashing her patented fist pump multiple times on the front nine. But Stark only had one blemish on her card, and consecutive birdies on 14 and 15 put the first Oklahoma State flag on the board.
In the second match, Shepherd and Fierro duked it out for 17 holes, yet the Mexico native was unphased outside of a chunked wedge shot on 2 and a short miss on the 15th green. In addition, Shepherd's distance control with her irons left more to be desired. The Indiana native fought back from a 3-DOWN deficit through eight, though, with a huge par on 12 bringing her to 1-DOWN. However, a costly three-putt on 14, coming after her approach failed to catch the ridge past the flag and her par attempt lipped out harshly, gave Fierro the cushion to close it out with some clutch putting on 16 and 17.
The Raptor Course at Grayhawk Golf Club, with its fairway bunkers and unpredictable runouts, is certainly a course that can look much simpler if a player can rip driver down Broadway.
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That should have made it a perfect fit for Brinker, one of the most prolific drivers of the golf ball to enter the Blue Devil program. But the freshman's putter would not cooperate from mid-range in the afternoon.
The clinching match between Brinker and Tatematsu was even through seven holes, but the momentum clearly shifted on the par-three eighth. Brinker’s eight iron drifted just left of the hole, a very solid shot that reached the proper plateau of the green. However, Tatematsu would one-up the freshman, stuffing her tee shot just past the flag and nailing a short birdie putt to take a lead that she would never relinquish.
The final match featured Jaravee Boonchant and Maddison Hinson-Tolchard, an accomplished amateur from Australia. Boonchant, true to her extensive experience, was patient early on, staying content with finding the center of the green and two-putting for par.
Yet when Hinson-Tolchard missed a near tap-in on 9 to give the Thailand native a 1-UP lead at the turn, Boonchant immediately gave the shot back on 10 when her approach found the green side bunker from the middle of the fairway. From there, the senior stayed a hole behind until Oklahoma State clinched the three points needed to advance to Wednesday's finals, where it will face No. 4-seed Ole Miss.
Quarterfinals were quite a different story for the Blue Devils, despite the talent that Arizona State presented with two top-20 amateurs in the world in Linn Grant and Olivia Mehaffey. Tuesday morning was dripping with intensity despite the extremely early start, with Kim matching up against Mehaffey in the leadoff grouping on the first tee.
"Olivia has so much experience, and there's a lot for me to learn from her as well," Kim said. "Her game's so solid, so I knew I had to bring my best game out there to get by her."
As the morning was winding down, the Blue Devils already held a 2-1 lead against the Sun Devils. Kim and Chen had already wrapped up victories, while Boonchant was unable to claim the lead against Ashley Menne at any point and fell 2&1. With matches featuring Shepherd and Brinker in Duke’s corner late on the back nine, the pressure ramped up.
Although Shepherd could not convert a short putt on the final green to clinch the morning matches, back on 17, Brinker drove the green, leading to a birdie and a 2&1 victory against Amanda Linner that officially moved the Blue Devils into the next stage of the bracket.
Closing out the quarterfinals was aided by a bit of prior knowledge from the 2019 NCAA Championship in Fayetteville, Ark., an event that saw endless clutch moments by the Blue Devils—including Kim and Boonchant.
"Arkansas showed us that we can be down and come back up right at the very end. That is a great experience to have had, because it leads to things you can share with the present team and anything can happen in both directions," Brooks said.
Chen got off to a blazing start in the morning heat against Alessandra Fanali, winning four of the first five holes and never looking back. Even when Fanali knocked it on the green in two at the par-five seventh, Chen reached the putting surface immediately after and rolled in a downhill eagle putt. A par on 13 was enough to secure a 7&5 victory over her Sun Devil counterpart, with Chen putting the first Blue Devil point on the board.
"It doesn't hurt for [Chen's teammates] to see that [point]," Brooks said. "We're gonna have people fight to the very end, whether they're seeing the success on the board or not. We preach that all the time that you just fight to the end, and it doesn't matter what you see."
Chen may have had the most lopsided victory of the morning wave, and Brinker may have clinched Duke’s spot in the semifinals, but the most pivotal match of the quarters was between Kim and Mehaffey.
The urgency of the clash was obvious, as Brooks and Arizona State head coach Missy Farr-Kaye went with two of their stalwarts to kick things off. That importance was palpable from Kim and Mehaffey's play early, as both managed to roll in some crucial putts on the opening nine.
But what's a Gina Kim match without some late drama? The defining moment of the quarterfinals for Kim came at the drivable par-four 17th. Clinging to a 1-UP lead, the North Carolina native elected to lay up with a six iron to a comfortable yardage rather than go for the gusto and try to knock it on from 276 yards away. Mehaffey, hitting second, decided to put the peddle to the meddle and hit a high fade with the driver that finished right of the green.
"I was itching to take out the driver," Kim said. "But you know, I told myself 'I got two holes to play and I got a 1-UP lead, so I think I can make a birdie. I feel pretty confident in my wedge game.'"
A wedge to short range led to a birdie, and a subsequent Kim shriek of joy. Once Mehaffey failed to get up and in from a gnarly lie in the right rough, Duke moved to within a point of advancing to the afternoon semifinals.
Disappointing finish aside, the Blue Devils remain grateful for another chance at a postseason run and optimistic for the future. The lack of a fall season, strict COVID-19 restrictions and Boonchant arriving to campus in March made for a challenging year, nothing like any college golf team would have envisioned even 15 months ago.
The departure of Boonchant, who will soon turn professional and seek to accomplish her dreams on the LPGA, is going to hurt, but everyone else should return and the Blue Devils will add Sophie Bae and Rylie Heflin to the mix as promising young prospects.
"All the things that you would say to a team that has worked extremely hard," Brooks said regarding what he told his team after the semifinals. "Handled COVID really, really well, pulled together. Very selfless team. I just said, 'Hold your heads high and be proud of the season.'"