Duke women's golf 2023 season preview

Duke players and head coach Dan Brooks at the 2022 NCAA Franklin Regional.
Duke players and head coach Dan Brooks at the 2022 NCAA Franklin Regional.


Year 39 of the Dan Brooks era is here, and after a three-plus-month break after the fall slate ended Oct. 30, the 16th-ranked Blue Devils are ready to run it back. Heading into next week’s Nexus College Invitational in the Bahamas, Duke brings back the same roster that finished fifth in the NCAA regionals in May 2022, in addition to promising freshman Andie Smith.

As usual, the winter months in Durham have not been the most conducive to golf, with the Blue Devils’ qualifier for the Bahamas event delayed by several days, according to Brooks. But the longtime head coach said that has not stopped the entire roster from putting in the work on the range and on and around the greens, a trait that he said has to “come from the belly.”

For the Blue Devils to contend for a 23rd ACC title and return to true national title contention, strides are needed. Erica Shepherd, in her senior campaign, is a solid putting season away from following in the footsteps of previous Duke leads, including former teammate Gina Kim. Phoebe Brinker, the defending conference individual medalist, is as impressive as they come from tee to green, but can she become more consistent and reach All-American status? Anne Chen captured her first collegiate win last spring at the Chattanooga Classic—can she put herself in position for another? 

Those three will drive the bus for Duke, but do not forget about senior Megan Furtney, sophomore Rylie Heflin and Smith. Match play, the currency of team postseason success in college golf, requires top-to-bottom depth. That tests every program in the country, including the Blue Devils. 

“Energy is great. Everybody on this team is, I think, psyched to be a part of this, and I think they're ready to get going,” Brooks said.

New player to watch: Andie Smith

Considering Smith is the only newcomer to the program, this is a straightforward choice. But considering her likely spot in the starting lineup for Duke’s four events until the ACC Championship, Smith is sure to play a key role in her first collegiate spring. 

According to her head coach, that should not be too much of a problem. 

“I’d call her a mature freshman,” Brooks, who also lauded Smith’s energetic personality, said. “She really kind of already has Duke figured out, and she seems pretty darn comfortable, to me, for a freshman.”

In five fall events, Smith showed flashes of that maturity and obvious talent, with a 3-under 69—including seven birdies—to close out her debut at the ANNIKA Intercollegiate in September 2022. Her best finish was a tie for 14th (out of 39 competitors) at the Jackson T. Stephens Cup at famous Seminole Golf Club in South Florida.

Brooks said that, along with Heflin, Smith has been “learning how to be comfortable in this environment,” a process that the freshman attested to in an interview with GoDuke last month.

“Going into the fall with the tournament, practice and workout schedule and then juggling academics with all of that—it was very easy for me to get adjusted because I saw that everybody had already gone through what I was going through and they were all very supportive of me,” Smith said. 

Her fall scoring average was 75.1, but with six American Junior Golf Association wins and the 4-1A state title back in 2021, in one of the most competitive states in the country, odds are that Smith will feature on a leaderboard or two these next few months.

Returning player to watch: Anne Chen

There are a few different directions I can go here. Shepherd and Brinker led the way at Duke’s Bahamas qualifier, per Brooks, and are the two most accomplished golfers on the roster. After all, the duo finished 1-2 at the ACC Championship last spring, with Brinker cruising to a six-shot victory over her teammate. 

But a quick glance at the spring of 2021 reveals why Chen is so essential to the Blue Devils’ success in the spring of 2023. That season, Duke had three All-Americans in Shepherd, Gina Kim and Jaravee Boonchant, a formula that resulted in an appearance in the NCAA match-play semifinals. 

Kim and Boonchant turned pro in the months after that run, and Brinker and Chen stepped up to snag their first victories last spring. The beat goes on.

“I've rolled through a lot of different classes, so it's just what we do,” Brooks said. “We roll them out, but we roll them in.”

Ultimately, though, Chen is the one to watch, as Shepherd was a preseason Golfweek Second Team All-American, and according to Golf Channel’s Brentley Romine, Brinker may be ready to slide into that top spot in the lineup. If Chen can take that No. 3 spot and run with it—a distinct possibility considering her all-around skillset and propensity for heating up in a hurry—Duke will be one of the top teams in the country.

Most anticipated event: Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, Feb. 27-Mar. 1

You always want to test yourself with the best, and while reigning champion Stanford will not be in the field at Hilton Head Island, S.C., the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate will feature nearly all of the other title contenders. No. 2 Wake Forest, No. 3 (and host) South Carolina, No. 4 Oregon, No. 7 Texas, No. 10 LSU, No. 11 Baylor, No. 13 Arizona State and No. 14 Virginia make up a loaded invite list, and that’s before you even mention the 16th-ranked Blue Devils. Plus, the current rankings are based on the fall slate, so there is actual context (not just offseason hype) to this. 

This event is a staple of Duke’s schedule, and considering the strength of the field, it will be fascinating to see where the Blue Devils stand at the conclusion of play in the Palmetto State.

Best-case scenario

Within the ACC, the Blue Devils likely remain in the top four, alongside the usual crew of Wake Forest, Florida State and Virginia. The Demon Deacons, with seniors Rachel Kuehn and Lauren Walsh, along with graduate student Emilia Miglaccio, are the clear conference favorites, and a genuine threat to Stanford’s perch atop the sport. 

Duke can get to the finals of match play at the conference tournament, but it will require multiple things. Brinker and Shepherd have to see more putts drop, Chen has to be a consistent top-10 threat, Smith has to be consistent and Heflin and Furtney have to avoid the big numbers. If that all happens, this is a potential top-10 team in the country, and a shoe-in for a return to Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the NCAA Championship, after missing out by a single shot at regionals last year.

“We've got some experienced, talented players in Anne, Phoebe and Erica, that's a real solid core of experienced talent on the team right there,” Brooks said.

There, Duke would be hard-pressed to finish in the top eight in stroke play (the benchmark for a spot in match play), but anything is possible with a couple of hot rounds. Consider the current ceiling for the program to be right at that dividing line between match play quarterfinalist and ninth-place finisher. 

Worst-case scenario

It’s difficult to envision Duke not finishing in the top four at ACCs, but a second-straight loss in the semifinals is certainly possible. If Brinker, Shepherd and Chen fail to make the final leap into stardom, the ceiling of the program is considerably lower than what has been the expectation in the facility over the last two decades and change.

As for Furtney, Heflin and Smith, a bit of consistency would be a major boost, but if none of the three become that reliable fourth score (an unlikely scenario, but a scenario nonetheless), Duke will struggle to factor for long in the postseason. Advancing through regionals feels like a given, but once they reach Arizona for NCAAs, the Blue Devils could struggle enough to finish toward the bottom of the 24-team field.


Rego: 2nd in the ACC, 10th at NCAA Championship

Max Rego profile
Max Rego

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.


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