In what was simply a stepping point to potentially greater things to come, the Blue Devils got the job done. But if Duke is going to secure an eighth national title later this month, regionals cannot serve as the best version of the Blue Devils this postseason.
At The Ohio State University Golf Club Scarlet Course, the top-seeded Blue Devils finished at +16 to take home joint second place honors in the Columbus Regional. Throughout the week, scoring conditions were a spot of bother, with no teams finishing under par and Georgia capturing first at +1. With the top six from each region advancing to the NCAA Championship, Duke is now part of the final stage of the postseason for the 32nd time in program history.
"We were playing to win, so there's a little disappointment in the fact that we didn't win," head coach Dan Brooks said. "Georgia really, they came out strong yesterday and they stayed strong today...so when you lose to good golf, you gotta feel okay about it."
Going in, one uncertainty was the host site. Only sophomore Erica Shepherd had ever hit a shot on the Scarlet Course, putting the Blue Devils behind the eight-ball in terms of venue knowledge. Combine that with the fact that Sunday's practice round was washed out by rain, and Duke—along with much of the field—was flying relatively blind on a tough layout when the opening tee shots were sent into the air Monday.
"We really probably leaned on Erica [Shepherd] more than anybody, because she's played the golf course and nobody else had," Brooks said. "I've been here, we played nationals here, we won nationals here, but just to get that player's perspective is really important. So they huddled around her on every tee during the practice round, she had some great input."
You would not have noticed the lack of mileage on Duke's tires from trips around the host course over the first few holes Monday. The Blue Devils got off to a blazing start in the opening round, holding a four-stroke lead at -5 by the middle of the front nine. While that appeared to be the prelude to Duke cruising to Arizona, nothing in college golf makes sense this time of year, so things got messy. By the end of the round, the Blue Devils were a shot back of No. 9-seed Oklahoma.
If you thought Monday was challenging, just take a quick peek at the Tuesday carnage. The course showed its teeth in the second round, a stark contrast to what we are likely to see at Grayhawk Golf Club in a little over a week. Duke shot 298—10-over—Tuesday, 11 strokes worse than round one.
"Well the rough was pretty substantial, and the wind's blowing so you're gonna be in the rough," Brooks said. "I mean really it's more of a statement of how well Georgia played and not so much how poorly other teams played."
Sure, Duke is still the defending national champion and was awarded a No. 1 seed for reason. But changes have abounded on the Blue Devil roster since that fateful day in Arkansas two years ago, as only Jaravee Boonchant and Gina Kim remain as holdovers from that title-securing group.
"Just knowing how things work and what we need to do really helps us figure out how to prepare for NCAAs," Kim said. "And I think it really helps us know what to expect most of all. I definitely know how to prepare myself for a lot of golf at NCAAs, and I definitely know what to expect, so I'm actually looking forward to it a lot."
With that being said, the fact that the only two upperclassmen on the roster, as well as Shepherd—with her experience on the Ohio State track—led the way for Duke this week should not be too much of a stunner. Anne Chen and Phoebe Brinker all have shown immeasurable talent during their respective amateur careers, yet they still have only been playing collegiate golf for a semester. The Texas and Delaware natives shot +8 and +9, respectively, with neither able to crack the top-25.
Kim spent the majority of the regional in the top-five on the leaderboard, as rounds of 70 and 74 put the Chapel Hill native in ideal position as a member of the chasing pack behind Georgia’s Jenny Bae.
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Wednesday was another test of patience for Kim, as the junior could only card two birdies juxtaposed against four bogeys to finish in a tie for 11th at +2 for the week. Interestingly, that is Kim's worst finish in a stroke-play event since the Gamecock Intercollegiate back in March, so the 2019 national champion has certainly raised her baseline in the latter portion of the season.
"I definitely think my mental game has gotten a lot stronger," Kim said. "I definitely play more conservatively, or at least play smarter, and take advantage of opportunities that come my way.... I just think having this belief and confidence has been growing since I won ACCs, which was really a big part for me. I think it was kind of a turning point for my game and so I'm just trying to ride that wave of confidence and hopefully it'll work out at NCAAs."
Boonchant, with the exception of a head-spinning eight hole stretch Tuesday that featured only one par, was plodding along per usual over the first couple rounds. Even her chaotic run from holes 9 through 16 on the second day included three birdies, so the senior did not see her scorecard go down the drain in the midst of the high winds. A final-round 73 put Boonchant in a tie for 13th at +4, the same score as Shepherd.
Alongside fellow regional qualifiers Georgia, Arizona State, Kentucky, Michigan and Kent State, Duke now moves on to the NCAA Championship. The Blue Devils will tee it up May 21 in Scottsdale, Ariz., as part of the 24-team field.