The setting was shifted by 156 days and 1,801 miles, yet the results remained the same—Duke could not get over the Oklahoma State hump.
Back in May, the Cowgirls stifled the Blue Devils’ bid for an NCAA title in the match-play semifinals with a 5-0-0 sweep. While the finals of the East Lake Cup in Atlanta produced a closer result between the two programs, Duke came up just short, falling by a 3-2-0 decision.
“The great thing about it is everybody contributed in this tournament...” head coach Dan Brooks said. “We’ve got the sort of team that can kinda fight hard at the end, Anne Chen is very much that way, Erica [Shepherd]’s that way, so you see them get the wins. I wasn’t surprised at all at those two wins.”
Oklahoma State junior Hailey Jones dealt the decisive blow, taking down freshman Rylie Heflin 2&1, after she missed makable putts on 14 and 15. With Cowgirl stalwarts Maddison Hinson-Tolchard and Isabella Fierro already in the house after putting points on the board from beating Megan Furtney and Phoebe Brinker, respectively, Jones’ win on the 17th green was enough.
Those two Blue Devil points, while put up in an eventual losing effort, were still encouraging signs. In the third and fifth matches out, Shepherd and Chen rallied on the inward side to scratch out a 2-UP and 1-UP victory, respectively. Gina Kim did not compete for Duke this weekend, as she was traveling back from Stage II Qualifying School for the LPGA, but she was at East Lake cheering her fellow Blue Devils on.
“They have great skills, and they’ve both been there throughout junior golf,” Brooks said of his two highest point-getters over the final two days. “Anne’s got a national championship under her belt, but she played a lot of high level junior golf, and I just witnessed it. Her conference championship, think about what she did, three 71s as a freshman and then won all her matches at the conference championship, and one of those matches she came back, she was 4-DOWN.”
Shepherd’s comeback win against Cowgirl sophomore Rina Tatematsu, the winner of Monday’s stroke-play portion, was particularly admirable. Now, at the conclusion of the fall slate, the Indiana native has clearly taken another step forward, exhibited by three top-fours—including a 73 that led to a joint fourth Monday—and a 2-0-0 record in match-play over the last two days in the Peach State.
“She’s become a straighter ball striker, just hits straighter, not as much curve, and she’s worked hard on her putting,” Brooks remarked on the areas where Shepherd has improved on in recent months. “Those are the two areas she needed work, and she’s the type of player that’s gonna figure out where she needs attention and figure out where she needs the time and effort to change it.”
East Lake, the annual host of the PGA Tour’s season-ending championship, puts a premium on accuracy off the tee, as the predictive power of driving accuracy on total strokes gained is 0.7 during that event. Enter Chen, Shepherd and Brinker, all of whom have considerable prowess with the big stick.
All three finished in the top-10 when the final putt dropped Monday evening, with Shepherd and Brinker finishing at +1 in that aforementioned joint fourth spot and Chen at +2 in a tie for eighth. Heflin and Furtney both ended in a tie for 13th in the 20-player field, and Duke found itself as the No. 3-seed for match-play.
Not only was the course layout a challenge, but there was even some wind whistling through the former home course of legendary amateur Bobby Jones.
“There’s no shortcuts to figuring that out, but [assistant coach] Jon [Whithaus] will be out there trying to help them realize that there may be a little bit of wind that you’re not feeling,” Brooks said on the importance of being aware of the wind at a tee-to-green test such as East Lake.
Their reward in the semifinals? No. 2-seed Ole Miss, the defending East Lake Cup and National Champions. But Duke was unphased by the high-profile duel, capturing four of the five matches to advance to Wednesday’s finals.
One aspect of the Tuesday pairings turned out especially favorable for Duke, as Chen was pitted against Julia Johnson, the All-American and co-catalyst of last May’s title run. While Johnson is the more accomplished and experienced golfer on paper and a shoo-in for ANNIKA Award contention in the springtime, the former SEC freshman of the year appeared out of gas after a hectic fall slate that featured three top-20 finishes, including a victory.
Chen, whose match-play chops are now officially worthy of monitoring, looked fresh and with nothing to lose, operating from the driver’s seat all afternoon. The sophomore ended the match by sinking a sidewinding putt on 16, clinching the second Duke point. Soon after, Furtney’s terrific lag putt on the same hole secured a 3&2 victory against Andrea Lignell, and Duke was officially on to the next round.
“I knew [Johnson] was a good player—they’re all good players out in the field this week—but it just allowed me to play golf and just be free and just focus on every shot on the golf course,” Chen said on the attitude that is needed when facing off against a high-caliber opponent like the Ole Miss senior.
Now, the program goes into competitive hibernation before returning to action in late February. Until then, reflecting on a fall swing that featured an average finish of 4.5 out of 12.5 teams is in order, and the Blue Devils look to emerge from the winter months ready to restart the chase for an eighth national title. In their eyes, that chase will be aided if the program stays completely in the moment.
“For next time, I feel like we just need to learn to stay focused, to stay on top of our game, and know that one shot doesn’t mean anything, it can go either way,” Chen said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.