CHAPEL HILL—Last season, Erica Shepherd cemented herself as one of the top collegiate golfers in the country, earning second-team All-America status and a No. 12 spot on Golfweek’s final individual rankings.
And from what we’ve seen so far this fall, she has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
Shepherd took home second-place honors at the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational this past weekend at the Finley Golf Course, shooting a career-low 54-hole ledger of 206, which also tied for the sixth lowest by a Blue Devil on a par-72 course. The junior started off the tournament red-hot, notching birdies on her first three holes and six of her first eight holes Friday, and maintained a top-two spot for virtually the entire weekend.
“We talked a little bit going into this about courage, the courage to use the things she's added to her swing,” head coach Dan Brooks said of Shepherd’s performance over the weekend. “To actually go in and have the courage to use those things and not fall back on other ways of swinging the club. And she just did a super job of committing in this tournament.”
The Tar Heel Invite marked Shepherd’s second top-four finish in three tournaments this fall, with the Indiana native quickly showing that as impressive as her sophomore campaign was, she’s ready to take that next step forward.
“It's two areas,” Brooks said of Shepherd’s improvement since last season. “Her overall ball striking has become straighter and straighter. Just the flight, the shape of the shot, has become straighter and straighter. And her putting. She's dedicated to both of them, really dedicated herself to both those areas. And it shows up—she's putting better and she's hitting the ball on a straighter line, it's not curving as much.”
Despite Shepherd’s standout performance, Duke disappointed a bit in the team leaderboard.
The Blue Devils tied for fifth in the 19-team field, finishing 17 strokes behind tournament champion and local rival Wake Forest. It’s worth noting that Duke was without All-American Gina Kim, who was competing in Stage II of LPGA Qualifying School in Venice, Fla., over the weekend, but that’s no excuse to Brooks.
“Yeah, we were without Gina. But we've got a team that can win this whether Gina’s in the lineup or not, so we didn't get it done,” Brooks said. “We're a team that could win this. I thought the efforts were great. I saw some really good golf out of our team. Maybe some little things that I think we could clean up, brush up on a little bit, but overall pretty satisfied with the effort.”
Meanwhile, sophomore Anne Chen is continuing to prove herself as a steady No. 3 behind Kim and Shepherd. The Texas native tied for 16th over the weekend, shooting up seven spots during Sunday’s final round, for her second top-20 finish of the fall. Chen’s ability to close the gap between herself and the Blue Devils’ dynamic duo of Kim and Shepherd will be a key factor to watch as the fall wraps up and into the spring.
Freshman Rylie Heflin, sophomore Phoebe Brinker and junior Megan Furtney rounded out the Blue Devils’ lineup in T-47th, T-52nd and 95th-place, respectively.
Duke has a quick turnaround before its final tournament of the fall, heading to Atlanta for the East Lake Cup next Monday through Wednesday. And with the spring—as well as any thoughts about returning to a third consecutive Final Four—still a ways away, Brooks and company are simply focused on the battle in front of them.
“Well, we're gonna be on Bermuda greens down [in Atlanta], so now it's time to get back to Bermuda,” Brooks said Sunday of the team’s mindset as the fall season concludes. “We're gonna be going over to Hope Valley on Wednesday. Hope Valley is very gracious to let us use their golf course, and we'll be going over there and playing on a Donald Ross course over there. East Lake is a Donald Ross, so it’s time to shift to that style of play.”
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