With a nine-man roster that includes three freshmen and four sophomores, Duke will have to spend much of this upcoming season relying on its youth.
And this past Saturday and Sunday at the 11th annual Rod Myers Invitational, the Blue Devils did just that.
Duke finished third in the 14-team event that was held at the Duke University Golf Club, anchored by a career showing from sophomore Jimmy Zheng. The New Zealand native tied for third individually, with a gutsy final stretch propelling both himself and his team onto the podium.
First, after his tee shot on the 16th hole sailed off the fairway and into the woods, Zheng avoided disaster with a beautiful shot onto the green before putting in for par. He then birdied his final two holes, finishing off Duke’s scoring with a clutch putt on the 18th hole in front of all of his teammates.
“I knew that I had to do something big coming in to help the team, help myself play better—I wasn’t in the best spot to be in contention,” Zheng said of those final few holes. “So [I] really put my gas pedal down on the last three holes and grinded it out.”
Zheng’s path to this point has gone a bit differently than what he expected when he signed with Duke in Nov. 2019 as the No. 5 recruit in the country. He wasn’t able to be with the team last fall, staying in New Zealand and taking online classes due to COVID-19, and then experienced an up-and-down freshman season as he adjusted to his first semester on campus.
But he stayed in Durham this past summer and “practiced his heart out,” as head coach Jamie Green put it. And based on this past weekend’s performance, it’s looking like the practice is paying off.
“He had a look in his eye that was a little bit different,” Green said of Zheng’s performance over the weekend. “And it's easier to get that when you're hitting quality shots and making some putts. But the look itself is something that's a decision. And he had a great look in his eye and that's the same sort of thing that he had—he was fist-pumping those birdie putts coming in, and that's the guy we recruited. So we're excited to have him here.”
Zheng wasn’t the only sophomore to show out, though.
Ian Siebers followed suit in a tie for eighth place, continuing his run as one of the Blue Devils’ most consistent golfers over the last two years. The Washington native led the team with a 71.07 stroke average a year ago, setting the program’s single-season freshman record, en route to All-ACC and PING All-East Region honors. He and Zheng are quickly becoming one of the most formidable young duos in the ACC.
As if two sophomores leading the way wasn’t enough, three freshmen rounded out Duke’s lineup during the tournament. Kelly Chinn—who signed as the No. 1 recruit in the country last November—tied for 23rd, while classmates Luke Sample and John Peters tied for 41st and 58th, respectively.
Despite the promise displayed by Duke’s youth, there were parts of the tournament that left a lot to be desired.
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The Blue Devils struggled out of the gates, sitting in a tie for seventh after the opening 18 holes. They eventually fought their way back, but that rocky start prevented Duke from truly competing with Triangle Area rivals No. 5 North Carolina and No. 13 N.C. State—the Tar Heels and Wolfpack finished 19 and 16 shots ahead of the Blue Devils, respectively.
With such a young team, however, it’s about fighting through those bumps in the road and continuing to gain experience as the season rolls along.
“We try not to play up the fact that guys are young. I mean, these are high-caliber junior and amateur golfers by the time they come in here…. The more they kind of gel with the fact that we’ve got teammates and coaches out there, that's maybe the biggest adjustment,” Green said. “It's not the golf course or the golf itself. They know how to play, and I'm excited and proud of them for doing what they did.
“You know, this isn't any sort of excuse, but the reality of it is you got N.C. State and UNC—they have some young players but they've also got some very good experienced players. Their seniors and juniors are studs, and they've been playing at a high level.... So each time out, each tournament we’ll get a little bit more hardened and a little bit tougher in the teeth and just a little bit more comfortable as college golfers and we're excited about the next event.”
The Blue Devils will travel to nearby Winston-Salem, N.C., for the Old Town Club Collegiate Sept. 27-28.