Golf, despite being an individual sport, is often defined by duos.
The Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge came to a close Tuesday with Duke finishing tied for eighth at +27 over 54 holes. It marked another middling performance for the 22nd-ranked Blue Devils, as they are yet to record a top-five team finish this spring.
But if there’s one takeaway from the three-day event in Palos Verdes Estates, Ca., then it’s that sophomores Phoebe Brinker and Anne Chen led the way, tying for 18th and 26th at +5 and +7 on the individual leaderboard, respectively.
Coming off of a freshman year that did not feature a fall season and adhered to strict COVID-19 policies, the pair has gotten the benefit of a normal college experience, on and off of the golf course, in 2021-22.
That has allowed their relationship to thrive.
“We push each other to play better,” Chen said. “And we're always happy for each other when one plays well, and the other one doesn't play well. We're like best friends on and off the golf course.”
With the trustworthy duo of Jaravee Boonchant and Gina Kim turning pro since last May’s NCAA semifinal appearance, Brinker and Chen have been tasked with taking the next step.
Erica Shepherd, with her amateur success and talent from tee-to-green, is certainly the most established Blue Devil. But oftentimes in college golf, your unit is only as strong as the two and three spots of your lineup, and that is where Brinker and Chen enter the equation.
“Since we don't have Gina [Kim], we're down to our five players at every golf tournament, so it's definitely more focusing and wanting to play better and just know, at the end, nationals is our end goal. Since I've experienced that, I know what it takes to get there,” Chen said.
Chen’s freshman year was defined by one trait—flashes in key spots. A case in point came in her match against Florida State’s Charlotte Heath in last April’s ACC match play finals.
Duke was already well on its way to the team conference crown, but the then-freshman looked to be on the verge of falling to Heath, trailing 4-DOWN through 13 holes. Chen’s next five holes, though, did not resemble the play of a freshman in the slightest.
Two birdies and some help from Heath later, and the Texas native clinched a 1-UP win on the 18th green, her putter raised in celebration.
As Chen turned the page to her second year in Durham, her focus was channeling those flashes, tightening things up and showcasing improved consistency, particularly with the longest and shortest clubs in the bag.
“Definitely I’ve been pretty consistent with my driver, I'm able to hit a lot of fairways so that helps. I've improved definitely on my putting, just being able to make more of those 12, 10-footers for birdie really does help offset all the bogeys and other holes,” Chen said on what has been working in recent tournaments.
So far this spring, despite an absence of top-10 finishes, consistency has clearly been a theme for the former AJGA All-American. Chen has posted a tie for 26th, a tie for 33rd and a tie for 26th at the Moon Golf Invitational, the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate and the aforementioned Regional Challenge, respectively.
In California, her first-round 70 matched Brinker’s second-round 70 as the low round of the week for Duke. During that round, she had only three bogeys and was -3 on the par fives.
But there still is work to do. Chen’s ball-striking is a major plus, but there are always days when you simply don’t have it swing-wise. That is where playing safe, in addition to scrambling, comes into play.
“Definitely short game and being able to hit the center of the green more to give myself more chances to have birdie putts and not having to kind of recover and get up and down every single hole,” Chen said on what she has to improve on.
As for Brinker, her length off of the tee gives her an advantage at virtually every course she tees it up at. Palos Verdes Golf Club was one of those tracks.
“It set up really well to my game, which was nice. And the course played a little bit different day to day, but overall, it gave me a bit of an advantage,” Brinker said.
But not every course is a bomber’s paradise. The driver can bring trouble into play at some venues, and if the greens are firm, you have to attack from the fairway. That puts a premium on throttling back in favor of accuracy, as well as recovering when you are out of position.
“Other courses where it's not, if the course doesn't really suit that part of my game, I have to fall back on improving my short game,” Brinker said.
Her driver is obviously a weapon, yet the Delaware native is starting to put all the pieces together this spring. That applies to her chipping, putting and even the mental side of the game—an essential yet often underappreciated part of golf.
“I think overall, my game is definitely a lot more well-rounded. And not just physically but mentally as well,” Brinker said. Just getting more experience and playing in more tournaments has really helped me just learn how to handle mental challenges out there, especially when it's windy, or the conditions aren't great or I just get an unlucky bounce or something.”
Monday’s second round was a testament to that well-rounded skill set. After a Sunday 72 that included two double bogeys, Brinker holed a wedge on the 319-yard sixth Saturday and eagled the par-five 16th via a 15-footer.
When recapping the entire week, the Blue Devils still need to round into form. After all, it is now less than a month until the ACC Championship.
But if its sophomore duo continues to make strides, Duke can right the ship.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.