Late May gives way to one thing in college golf: champions being crowned. And much like the last few seasons, the Blue Devils are right in the thick of the chase for eternal glory.
For the third straight year, Duke is advancing to the match play portion of the NCAA Championship. Over four rounds at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., Duke compiled a 3-over total, clinching the No. 2-seed and a date in the quarterfinals against No. 7-seed and host Arizona State.
"Well, I'm happy about the seeding," head coach Dan Brooks said. "Arizona State's a good team, so we got a tough team, but I'm happy that we're seeded where we are and I'm ready to get this match-play thing going."
No one, and I mean no one, was catching Stanford on the team leaderboard, as the Cardinals bolted their way to -10 for a whopping 13-stroke margin of victory over the Blue Devils. A weekend Stanford charge turned the battle for first into a formality, so all the Blue Devils could truly focus on during the final day of action was playing well enough to clinch the second seed for match play. Thanks to the lineup of Gina Kim, Erica Shepherd, Jaravee Boonchant, Anne Chen and Phoebe Brinker carding respective rounds of 73, 74, 73, 72 and 71 Monday, they did just that, clipping Oklahoma State by two shots for runner-up honors.
Every year, the final day of stroke play at NCAAs delivers peak drama. Each shot is magnified, particularly for squads on the edge of the top eight, and the juxtaposition of jubilation city versus heartbreak hotel is must-see TV. But that’s not all that goes on during the penultimate stage of the postseason. The individual title was also up for grabs, and Stanford’s Rachel Heck managed a wire-to-wire victory to make it a rare double whammy for the Cardinal. Despite that, you don’t have to look too far down the board to find some Blue Devils.
Gina Kim continued her impressive run of form in recent events, carding a Saturday 67 to leap into the top-five. On the backs of seven birdies and just two bogeys in her second round, the ACC medalist put herself into contention for the individual crown. A rollercoaster Sunday 72—Kim made just two pars in an opening nine 37—allowed the junior to keep pace in the upper echelon of the standings.
While Monday did not feature Kim blitzing the Raptor Course with birdies, the Chapel Hill native still notched a joint fifth finish at two-under, a five-place improvement over her performance in the 2019 stroke play portion.
"I'm sure [Kim] feels great about being in the top-five but at the same time she's somebody who's gonna think about winning this championship, she won the conference tournament," Brooks said. "But she doesn't get down and dwell, she's a fighter, so I'm sure she's motivated to get after it in match-play [and] finish the job."
Kim’s fellow compatriot from that championship squad, Jaravee Boonchant, hovered around even most of the weekend, eventually coming in at +3. An opening day 72 featured her typical consistent self, yet a double bogey on her first hole Saturday threatened to send NCAAs in the wrong direction for the Thailand native. Boonchant would ultimately recover on Day Two, to post a 71, but a +4 mark over the final 36 sent the senior down into a tie for 20th.
Kim and Boonchant have also brought some intangibles to the table, given their mutual experience from that 2019 team.
"They're all doing great, they know what this is about. They've all been through the Arkansas championship, I mean two of them have, and they know how much of a grind it is. They keep sharing with the rest of the team how much energy it takes down the stretch," Brooks said.
In the less experienced category, Phoebe Brinker showed that the lights would not be too bright in her first appearance at NCAAs, carding 70 Saturday en route to finishing alongside Kim in fifth. Throughout the week, the Delaware native's consistency was what stood out, with all of her rounds falling within a three-shot dispersion.
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"Phoebe's just been doing a great job," Brooks said. "Just fantastic to string four days together, to have your high score be a 73 at the NCAA championships, stroke-play portion, what more could you ask."
Match play figures to be a total team effort, but there are two players that stands out as potential x-factors. Erica Shepherd, who was flying under the radar heading into the week given her mojo earlier in the season, was unable to build a ton of momentum over her initial 47 holes, as the Indiana native sat at +7.
Something must have flipped on the 12th tee Sunday, because the sophomore was 3-under the rest of the way in the third round. Shepherd racked up three birdies over her final seven holes in round three, and kept a clean card sans two holes Monday.
Still finishing in a tie for 36th at +6, Shepherd will have to avoid the big number in match play—she has made two double bogeys so far—to make her mark on Duke's point total.
And then there's Anne Chen. Chen's debut campaign has featured its highs, but stroke-play was a bit of a struggle for the Texan. The freshman finished in a tie for 62nd at +12, mostly thanks to a +9 start through 36 holes. Chen will have to channel her play from the ACC championship finals, where she went from 4-DOWN with four holes to play to a 1-UP victory, over the next few days.
So far, Grayhawk Golf Club has posed a stern test for everyone who let it fly over the last four rounds. With firm greens defining the challenge, precision and patience were the two prevailing themes of stroke play, something that was apparent on Day One. In the afternoon wave Friday, during which conditions were clearly more challenging than what teams saw in the morning, the Blue Devils were able to piece together a respectable score, coming in at +4 to sit just three shots behind Texas.
As the week evolved, so did the leaderboard, which was fairly bunched after Friday. Boonchant led the way early with an opening-round 72, but it was Kim who carded that aforementioned round of the week to lead the Blue Devils to a seven-under Saturday. Through two rounds, the Blue Devils were just four back of Stanford at -3, but things can change significantly in the blink of eye.
Sunday saw the gap between the Blue Devils and Cardinals continually grow, as Stanford had two players—Heck and Angelina Ye—finish in the top two individual spots. Duke did not quite have the same magic it possessed during Saturday’s action, leading to a 20-shot deficit by closing time, but no damage was done from the standpoint of where the Blue Devils were located in the team standings going into Monday.
Kim will get things off and running at the crack of dawn for Duke Tuesday, facing off against Arizona State's Olivia Mehaffey at 6:20 a.m. PST. While match play is a unique format, don't expect to see the game plan change too severely for Brooks' group.
"It's not a huge shift in the way you play, it really isn't," Brooks said. "The times when you will need to make decisions, match-play decisions, make themselves pretty clear, so it's not like you've gotta be preparing a different way of thinking. You basically go out and play the game of golf the best you can."
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.