Phoebe Brinker had her sights set on a second collegiate win. Former U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Jensen Castle had other ideas.
At the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational at Governors Club in Chapel Hill, 54 holes was not enough to determine an individual champion, as Brinker and Castle were tied at -7 (209). Brinker led by two heading into the final round on the heels of a 67-70 start, and had a five-footer to win on her final hole of the event (the tournament featured a shotgun start, so groups were scattered throughout the course), but could not convert and signed for a final-round 72. In the sudden-death playoff, Castle parred the par-three ninth, while Brinker found the sand and failed to get up and down to match her formidable Kentucky counterpart.
Ultimately, three bogeys over her final eight holes in regulation were what cost Brinker the win, along with Castle making an eagle at the par-five 17th, her penultimate hole. Golf is a cruel game, as Brinker beat 97.3% of the 75-player field but did not take home first-place honors. The junior looked on the bright side in her post-round comments, though.
“I played a lot of solid golf,” Brinker told GoDuke after the playoff. “I had a lot of great stretches, so I think that is why I was able to score a lot under.”
Brinker indeed had multiple great stretches, with birdies on four of six holes at one point during the first round before closing her opening round with three birdies in her last six tries.
But it was her second round Monday (the first day included 36 holes) that saw Brinker show the level of consistency that, if repeated often, could lead to the Delaware native’s third year in Durham being a major step forward. Down the stretch of that round, as the sun set over the rolling hills and tall pines at Governors Club, Brinker appeared to be on autopilot. Despite having a cart, Brinker opted to walk alone to multiple tees and greens. She was clearly in a zone.
While assistant coach Jon Whithaus saw most of Brinker’s second round, head coach Dan Brooks did not seem overly surprised at the righty’s performance, summing up her round by saying “she looks great,” Monday night. A brief, but clear indication of her form.
As the longest-hitting Blue Devil, Brinker did not need her driver on every par four, opting for position off the tee. From there, her wedge and iron game took over, as Brinker gave herself four makeable looks at birdie from No. 2 through No. 5—her 13th through 16th holes of the round.
A 10-footer for birdie on the par-four fifth, followed by a birdie at the par-five seventh Tuesday morning to close the round (play was called due to inclement weather late Monday) gave Brinker the aforementioned two-shot cushion.
Her final-round 72 featured some of the “bumps in the road” that Brinker described in her comments to GoDuke, but the junior emphasized that “Just putting myself in these situations definitely makes me better,” despite failing to close the deal.
Hosting the event for the first time since 1999, Governors Club poses a challenging walk, making carts a prudent choice by the tournament organizers for Monday’s play. That did not eliminate the elevation changes and uneven lies—even from the middle of the fairway—though, as distance control was no picnic.
As a team, Duke finished in a tie for fifth at +19 (23 shots back of first-place Kentucky), a disappointment considering that No. 2 Wake Forest was the only other program in the field ranked higher than the seventh-ranked Blue Devils. Erica Shepherd, Anne Chen, Rylie Heflin and Andie Smith had trouble avoiding the big number, with the quartet racking up nine combined double bogeys and two quadruple bogeys (both by Heflin).
“Had a great first 18, hard to say what caused us to slip a little bit, it’s the game of golf, it happens,” Brooks said after the second round.
“We have a really cool team, I’m sure this doesn’t feel good to them,” he added Tuesday night. Despite their poor finish, the 39-year head coach expressed confidence in his group’s ability to bounce back.
Shepherd parlayed two late birdies to sneak into the top 10, finishing in a tie for eighth at even (216). Brooks said that heading into the final round, the Indiana native shortened up her swing and controlled her tempo, and her play improved as a result.
Chen, Smith and Heflin ended in a tie for 43rd, tie for 60th and solo 73rd at +11, +15 and +27, respectively. All three have shined at various points in the fall, and Chen only needed 27 putts in her final-round 77, so the sky is not falling, but with the Landfall Tradition in Wilmington, N.C., Oct. 28-30 closing out the fall slate, the trio will have to put the week in Chapel Hill behind them.
Brooks was confident in that happening, as in golf, success often can come down to something as simple as a “good warmup”, according to the 39-year head coach. Plus, the program will utilize the same routine to prepare for the trip to Wilmington.
“Well, clearly this was not the kind of finish we were looking for, but we have a resilient team,” Brooks told GoDuke Tuesday. “This is a long fall with a lot of golf, but they are going to get some rest and we'll be back ready to go.”
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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.