After a fifth-place finish at NCAA Regionals, the Blue Devils’ offseason starts a few weeks earlier than usual.
Even with that being the case, it was a long journey to this point, as Duke competed in 10 events—11 if you count the Chattanooga Classic, in which Anne Chen, Rylie Heflin and Megan Furtney played as individuals—dating back to September.
From Gina Kim turning pro to Furtney being a consistent member of the lineup again, there was a lot to take away from head coach Dan Brooks’ 38th year at the helm. Here are three of the main storylines from regionals and the season as a whole.
Brinker struggles with par fives at regionals
Not every golfer has one particular skill that separates them from the rest, but sophomore Phoebe Brinker’s length and accuracy with the driver is, without question, her strong suit. She hovers around 280 yards off the tee, which gives her a leg up on long par fours and par fives.
Despite all that, Brinker struggled a bit on the par fives at regionals, going -2 on 12 par-five opportunities over three days. For reference, Alabama’s Polly Mack, the individual medalist from this week, went -8 on the par fives en route to 12-under overall and a four-shot victory. Taking care of holes four, seven, 14 and 18 was crucial in how things shook out at Legends Club.
After the final round Wednesday, though, Brooks emphasized how tricky the par fives were, saying, “If you're trying to get that birdie, it's easy to drift off into the rough and now you get in a tough spot.” Oftentimes, taking on risk is required to give yourself chances at birdie, and the par fives at regionals fit the bill.
“A great par five is one that just begs you to go, because it doesn't look that bad, or it does give you an opportunity to birdie, or even eagle, if you can just hit this reasonably difficult shot,” Brooks said.
Getting off the tee is one thing, but strong long-iron play is what ultimately gets the job done on reachable par fives. As her win at the ACC Championship showed, Brinker is a prolific ball-striker, and with another summer of improvement, par-five scoring once again projects to be a major advantage for the Delaware native as a junior.
Chen makes the sophomore leap
As a freshman, Chen had a scoring average of 74.2, with a low round of 71—solid stats that indicated promise. During her sophomore campaign, the Texas native backed up that encouraging debut with a scoring average of 72.8, including four rounds in the 60s and a low round of 66 at the Chattanooga Classic.
Chen is never one to back down from a challenge, which pays off in key spots. Three of her four highest finishes this season took place at the ANNIKA Intercollegiate, the East Lake Cup and NCAA Regionals, with the fourth being her first collegiate victory at the Chattanooga Classic in late March. The first three events all featured loaded fields, indicating that the Clements High School alum brings her best when her best is required.
“I just had to keep on going and keep focusing knowing that every single hole was a birdie chance,” Chen told GoDuke after Tuesday’s second round.
Going into her junior year, Chen still has room to grow, but the foundation is there. Her smooth tempo and aggressive mindset are ideal building blocks to lean on, and her performance out of the gates in the fall is sure to be noteworthy.
Running it back
Returning an entire roster is extremely rare for this program. Not since the 2012-13 season has Brooks brought back his entire unit from the previous year, but that will indeed be the case in 2022-23. Shepherd and Furtney, both juniors, are the longest-tenured Blue Devils, and incoming freshman Andie Smith will be the only new face once the fall rolls around.
It’s been a decade since this has happened, but there might be a blueprint for how much the Blue Devils will improve based on the spring of 2013. That year, Duke returned six members of a group that finished 15th at the 2012 NCAA Championship and added Celine Boutier and Yi Xiao. In 2013, the program was the runner-up at NCAAs to USC, a jump of 13 spots and a sign of things to come—the Blue Devils flipped the script in 2014, winning their sixth national title by two shots over the Trojans.
Boutier was the ACC Rookie of the Year and an honorable mention All-American in 2013, though, so unless Smith can be an utter force as a freshman, it’s obviously not a one-to-one comparison. But odds are that in the spring of 2023, Duke will take a step forward.
“Cleaning up one or two shots, that can go so far in this game,” Brooks said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article identified the 2021-22 season as Brooks' 37th season as head coach. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.