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Duke women's golf falters in opening tournament of the season

Junior Erica Shepherd struggled on the green this weekend, rolling in 32 putts on each day.
Junior Erica Shepherd struggled on the green this weekend, rolling in 32 putts on each day.

Well, it seems that it might take a bit of time for the winter rust to wear off for the Blue Devils.

Teeing off the post-Gina Kim and Jaravee Boonchant era, Duke ditched the unpredictable February weather here in North Carolina for Melbourne Fla., where temperatures in the 70s, even this time of year, are still the norm. But while head coach Dan Brooks and company harbor high expectations yet again, the 16th-ranked Blue Devils started their spring slate with an underwhelming tie for 10th in the 54-hole Moon Golf Invitational at windy Suntree Country Club. After an even-par total during Tuesday’s final round, Duke finished at +18, 28 shots behind conference foe Florida State.

“We got off to a rough start,” Brooks said Tuesday night. “Our first day was not good, and then we played decent golf the last few days, given it's our first competition. I just think we got we got a little bit of a hole that first day.”

Needing a final-day rally Tuesday just to jump into the top-eight, Duke was stuck in neutral, as the quintet of Erica Shepherd, Megan Furtney, Phoebe Brinker, Anne Chen and Rylie Heflin averaged 37.2 on their opening nines of the last round. Only Baylor, Louisville and Augusta shooting a combined +21 Tuesday allowed the Blue Devils to move up slightly from 11th, the spot they started the morning at. 

Scoring was an issue for the entire 84-player field, with just 20 rounds in the 60s in the Sunshine State. But Duke had an even tougher time putting together low numbers, as Chen’s Monday 67 and Brinker and Heflin’s Tuesday 71s represented the program’s only under-par rounds of the 54-hole event. 

Subsequently, Duke just could not keep pace with ninth-place Arkansas, much less the victorious Seminoles or fellow ACC counterpart Virginia—the Cavaliers finished second at -4, six shots back of Florida State in second. 

But that was not due to any issues with overexertion, a typical strategy when golfers fall behind the pace early.

“They fought hard the last few days, they didn't press or anything to try to get all the strokes back. They were able to let go of that first day pretty well, and that’s what you have to do,” Brooks said.

Those struggles could be attributed to one thing in particular—an inability to avoid the big numbers. As a lineup, Duke carded seven double bogeys during Sunday’s first round, with three coming on par fives. 

In fact, the Blue Devils played the par fives to an average of 5.1 over the three rounds. Considering the length and accuracy off the tee that Brinker and Shepherd bring to the table, that simply does not cut it. 

“Surprisingly, that is a positive in my opinion, because we lost some shots to just silly stuff,” Brooks remarked on the issues with par-five scoring. “But that doesn't indicate how talented you are and it's just silly stuff, it has to do with coming out of the winter.”

Shepherd paced the Blue Devils Sunday, but her one-over 73 was only enough to barely sneak into the top-25 on the individual leaderboard as the focus shifted to the final 36 holes. The Indiana native, who is poised for an All-American level junior campaign, could not get it going on the greens in the first round, tallying 32 putts.

That was the theme of the week for Shepherd, as she also had 32 putts Monday and Tuesday—notice a trend? Jokes aside, the putter will be the clear x-factor for the Center Grove alum as the season rolls along.

“I think just more time spent,” Brooks said on what Shepherd needs for her putting to improve. “We need to have a little bit warmer weather, where you can really camp out there on the greens and just spend more time. We need to play more rounds, nothing does better than just getting more rounds in and the last two, three weeks have been quite cold and we never know what winter’s gonna bring.”

Even during the second round, when being out of contention would seemingly have freed them up, the Blue Devils could not make any sort of charge up the leaderboard. Furtney’s quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-five fifth, part of a +7 week on that hole alone, sent the junior to her second of three straight rounds in the 80s. The Illinois native finished at +24 for the tournament, only one spot ahead of last place.  

Chen, on the other hand, bounced back nicely after an opening-round 79, as four birdies over a seven-hole stretch Monday turned things around for the Texas native. For the day, the sophomore notched seven birdies, five of which came after she hit her approach shot to inside 10 feet. Clearly, the former AJGA All-American has a propensity for firing at flags.

“If you hang up on that first day, you're not going to shoot the 67, you got to forget the first day and just go out and play. And she was able to do that. You might think that if you just really fight hard the next day, you can get it back if you're thinking that way, but it doesn't work…. You don't try harder. That doesn't work,” Brooks said on Chen’s ability to rebound.

Brinker and Heflin, the latter of which was competing in the first spring event of her collegiate career, were out of contention, finishing in a tie for 26th and a tie for 50th, respectively. Their one-under rounds Tuesday, though, were proof that time will likely yield more lower scores for the pair. 

Heflin showed flashes back in the fall, particularly with a second-round 70 at the Tar Heel Invite. As for Brinker, it should not take long for her way back into competitive form—casual rounds at the Washington Duke Inn, as challenging as that track can be, just do not compare to teeing it up under the gun of an actual tournament.

Now, with just four days away from competition, the Blue Devils shift their focus to a longtime staple of their February schedule—the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate down in Hilton Head, S.C. 

“They're really free to work on their academics to make sure those are all caught up, because they're going to be going right into spring break with another tournament,” Brooks said.


Max Rego

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.

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