For the first time since 2011, Duke did not qualify for the NCAA Championship.
Despite sitting in third place at +2 going into Wednesday’s final round at NCAA Regionals, the Blue Devils could not take advantage of a gettable Vanderbilt Legends Club. Over the last 18 holes in Franklin, Tenn., the typical lineup of Erica Shepherd, Megan Furtney, Phoebe Brinker, Anne Chen and Rylie Heflin could not get it going on the greens, combining for just 12 birdies on the day.
Duke shot 2-over in the final round, finishing at +4 for the event and in fifth place, just one shot behind Texas A&M. The top four teams from each regional site advance to the NCAA Championship, so Vanderbilt, Alabama, Wake Forest and the Aggies are moving on, while the Blue Devils’ season finishes earlier than they would have anticipated.
“I’m heartbroken for the team, because they’re the type of team that I think would have done some pretty special things at nationals…. We’re the kind of team that wanted to go back there and do it again, so it’s pretty heartbreaking not to be able to go back,” head coach Dan Brooks said after Wednesday's round.
With Texas A&M in the clubhouse at +3, the Blue Devils sat at +4 with Shepherd, Brinker and Chen yet to play the par-five 18th. But not every par five is an automatic birdie, as water all down the right side of the hole, along with a challenging back left pin, made going for the green too risky of a play.
Shepherd and Brinker both parred, leaving Chen, in the final group on the course, as the last chance. As was the case for much of the week, the Texas native wedged it tight to inside of 10 feet, setting up a look to match the Aggies.
“The slope that dies down to the pin is away from the hole, so if you land your approach shot too short of that pin it’ll kick it past the pin and over the green, or at least to the back fringe,” Brooks, who was at Chen’s side on the final hole, said. “So you’ve gotta land it pretty close to the pin, and you’ve gotta leave yourself back far enough to where you can spin the ball and land it right at the pin, and she did it beautifully.”
But due to the contoured final green and on a day that seemingly nothing could drop for the Blue Devils, Chen missed her birdie putt.
Without leaderboards on the course, the Blue Devils were not fully aware of how tight it was coming down the stretch. Yet Brooks, in unconventional fashion, told Chen where things stood on 18.
“She's proven to me that she plays well with her back against the wall. So I didn't hesitate to tell her,” Brooks said.
Putting issues were the story of the day, particularly for Chen and Shepherd—the tandem that Brooks was with for the entire day. Legends Club, a layout that Brooks deemed “one of the best designs that we’ve ever played,” features undulating greens and tricky slopes, making it a challenge to get the ball close and an even starker challenge to get it in the hole.
“[It was] just really hard to see, because they were both hitting it pretty close,” Brooks said on Shepherd and Chen’s play Wednesday. “The putts weren’t falling, just simple as that. Sometimes, they just don’t fall and they were not falling.”
From the start of Monday’s opening round, Shepherd and Chen paced the Blue Devils, as the duo combined for 10 first-round birdies en route to a pair of 71s. Both hit 10-of-14 fairways on the first day and averaged 29.5 putts.
Shepherd got off to a particularly hot start, collecting birdies on five of her first eight holes until a bogey at the par-five 18th—the Blue Devils began on the back nine.
On the way into the clubhouse, Shepherd gave a bit back, double-bogeying the 156-yard third and bogeying the par-five seventh—a hole that Duke, as a lineup, went 2-over on across the three days.
Brinker appeared to be charting the same course as Shepherd and Chen in Monday's first round, with the Delaware native sitting at -3 just six holes in. But double bogeys on 16 and 18 set up an inconsistent closing nine, and Brinker ended at +1 for the day and in a tie for 19th place.
Her second round was along the same lines thanks to a triple bogey on the par-four second and two straight birdies on No. 3 and No. 4. Brinker made enough birdies to put herself in position for a run, but major slip-ups hindered her chances of surging up the board.
For the entire week, Duke’s top three led the way. Shepherd and Chen tied for 11th at -2, while Brinker finished at +3 in a tie for 21st.
“They're seasoned players, they've played in big things,” Brooks said on his evaluation of the trio.
Heflin and Furtney, in their first appearances in NCAA action, finished in a tie for 30th at +5 and a tie for 45th at +11, respectively.
Freshman Sophia Bae redshirted the season due to a back injury, so Brooks trotted out the same five the entire spring, a rarity for the program. That gave Heflin and Furtney constant opportunities to gauge their skills against competition.
“I couldn't be more proud of Rylie,” Brooks said. “For her to get to the point where I felt like we can just let her go and play, is a really, really great advancement for her and her golf.”
“Megan works hard, and she's made a lot of progress, she’s made more progress than I think she realizes,” Brooks said.
It was a bunched leaderboard after the first round, as the Blue Devils and Crimson Tide were tied for first at -1, with Vanderbilt and Texas A&M sitting at even and +1, respectively.
For the 24 qualifying teams and 12 qualifying individuals, the season concludes at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., as the NCAA Championship starts May 20.
Duke will not be part of the festivities, but the entire roster will return for 2022-23 and incoming freshman and 2021 Florida 4-1A state champion Andie Smith figures to add depth and firepower.
“It's just a matter of shaving one or two strokes, each player, and this is very doable when you watch this team play,” Brooks said. “So this is a great motivator.”
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.