In their quest for consecutive conference team titles, the Blue Devils came up short. But thanks to Phoebe Brinker and Erica Shepherd, Duke did not leave Pawleys Island, S.C., with a lack of hardware.
Saturday, the third-seeded Blue Devils squared off against No. 2-seed Florida State in the ACC match-play semifinals at The Reserve Golf Club, a rematch of last year’s match-play finals in Greensboro, N.C. Looking to defend its conference crown from last April’s triumph, Duke simply did not give itself enough birdie looks down the stretch, eventually falling 3-0-2 to the Seminoles.
“We went into match play with a clear feeling that we could win and go on to the final. So it was disappointing to not get through it,” head coach Dan Brooks said.
Things wrapped up on the 16th green, as Charlotte Heath held a 3-UP lead over Erica Shepherd with just three holes to play. Once Shepherd’s birdie try from off the putting surface came up a roll short, Heath’s two-putt par was enough to put the third and decisive Seminole point on the board.
By that point, Florida State had already logged two victories in comfortable fashion. Seminole sophomore Alice Hodge, 1-UP on Duke’s Megan Furtney with six holes remaining, won the next two holes with a birdie and par. In the same vein as her teammate Heath, Hodge eventually sealed the match on 16 for a 3&2 victory.
The third match out, between sophomore Anne Chen and Florida State senior Amelia Williamson, went sideways for the Blue Devils early. Chen was 4-DOWN by the time she stepped on the seventh tee, and could not march a comeback on the back nine, falling 7&5.
The other two matches, featuring Duke freshman Rylie Heflin against Florida State senior stalwart Beatrice Wallin and Brinker against Seminole senior Cecilie Finne-Ipsen, both ended in a tie on technicality. Per ACC rules, once the overall match is clinched, the remaining individual matches are deemed ties, no matter the current score.
So despite Brinker being 3-UP on the 16th and Heflin rolling in a long birdie putt to clinch a 1-UP win on Wallin—the No. 6 amateur in the world—those matches did not go into the books as official victories for Duke.
Brooks remained upbeat regarding Heflin’s performance, saying, “She will always know that she won that match, we all will.”
Thursday and Friday’s stroke-play action—which is used to seed the top four teams for match play and determine individual medalists—painted a much rosier picture for Duke, however.
Brinker nabbed a major milestone in her second ACC Championship—her first collegiate victory. Holding a four-shot lead entering Friday’s final round, the big-hitting sophomore was methodical early on, stretching the lead to eight at one point.
With three birdies and a double bogey, Brinker got her long-awaited first win with a par at 18. She finished at 10-under, six shots ahead of Shepherd, who was the runner-up.
“Walking up the 18th hole, there's a big leaderboard…. So I definitely processed it a little bit before. And then as I was putting, I was just so excited, such a dream come true,” Brinker said on her emotions as the win neared.
Her teammates, ready to celebrate the moment, showered her with water shortly after she finished her round. It happened last year after Gina Kim secured medalist honors, but this time, it was Brinker’s turn in the spotlight.
“Just to have them be so supportive of me and so excited for me, [it] just shows how great of a team we have. And I'm just so lucky to be a part of it,” Brinker said on her teammates’ support.
Brinker sat just a shot back after the first 18 holes, but she turned on the afterburners as the second round started Thursday afternoon.
It started with birdies on 10 and 12, then an eagle on 13 kicked things into high gear. The Delaware native was rolling for the remainder of the round, using her length off the tee to shoot 65, ending the first day at 9-under.
Her driver was the primary weapon during that 65, which tied the tournament record. Brinker hit all 14 fairways en route to five birdies and the aforementioned eagle, making it an easy go around Pawleys Island.
“It just makes the par-fives into par-fours, just because they're shorter,” Brinker said on her prowess off the tee. “It just makes golf so much easier when you're hitting it straight and have that advantage with the shorter clubs into holes.”
Shepherd, on the other hand, was behind the eight ball early with a first-round 75.
But the last two rounds were the complete opposite. The Indiana native shot a bogey-free 68 to get under red numbers for the tournament, then parlayed three birdies in a four-hole stretch around the turn Friday to get into contention for second place. With a third-round 69, the lefty secured silver medalist honors in her second ACC championship.
“Erica is just a really solid player,” Brooks said. “You can see in those last two rounds, with 68, 69, with everything riding on it, to finish second. She's got every reason to feel great about her game.
“I just really feel like my game’s in a good place right now, finally, so it was good to finally see some good scores,” Shepherd told GoDuke Friday.
Chen sat at 3-over going into Friday, but an opening double bogey and a triple bogey at the 10th gave her a final-round 77 and a joint 24th-place finish. Furtney and Heflin also struggled over the final 18, with an 81 and 84 to finish in a tie for 49th and 51st, respectively.
Now, the Blue Devils await their seed for the NCAA Regional Championship. As the No. 22 team in the country, Duke will easily snag an at-large bid and will receive its regional site during the selection show April 27.
“We're gonna help them put together a great training regimen between now and regionals, based on their own individual schedules,” Brooks said on the approach he and associate head coach Jon Whithaus will take until Duke's postseason continues.
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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.