Heading into the postseason, Duke women's golf is 'clicking' at exactly the right time

Junior Phoebe Brinker finished second in April's ACC Championship.
Junior Phoebe Brinker finished second in April's ACC Championship.

Heading into another May of golf, Duke has flipped the script. 

The change is stark. In their first three events of the spring, the Blue Devils finished solo ninth (out of 10), joint 10th (out of 17) and eighth (out of 14). By the end of the third event, the rain-shortened Valspar Augusta Intercollegiate, barely over a month remained until the ACC Championship. A program so accustomed to repetitive contention was instead stuck in the middle. 

Since then, though, things have changed. In its first team win in nearly two years, Duke won the marathon Wolfpack Match Play in Raleigh, beating then-No. 3 South Carolina (3-2) and rival North Carolina (3-2) along the way. Then, junior Phoebe Brinker nearly pulled off an ACC title repeat, a third-round 64 leaving the big-hitting Delaware native in solo second, just two shots short of Virginia sophomore Amanda Sambach. Add in Erica Shepherd making the cut for the third time at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in March, and despite the Blue Devils’ semifinal loss to Clemson in the match-play portion of ACCs, there is some serious mojo brewing for head coach Dan Brooks and company.

“We now have had two tournaments where we’ve played Duke golf,” Brooks said at Sedgefield Country Club, just minutes after Clemson finished off the Blue Devils 3-1-1. 

But what does “Duke golf” mean, for this group in particular? Let Megan Furtney, whose senior spring has been a resurgent one, explain. 

“As a team it’s just a matter of everything kind of coming together at the same time,” Furtney told The Chronicle. “I mean, we’re all very talented players.”

With regionals set for May 8-10 at PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., the fifth-seeded Blue Devils are on the upswing. But how have they gotten to this point, and will it carry them to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the NCAA Championship?

‘Taking it all in’

For Furtney, the shift has stemmed from her practice habits. For someone who tries to stay in her own “bubble,” maximizing the time spent in that bubble is key.

“Getting into my own groove in terms of being clear on what I want to practice…. Just kind of going after it, I only have a month left here of college golf at Duke,” she said. “And so I think for me, it’s just been all about enjoying it and kind of taking it all in.”

That has paid off on the course. Furtney was the one of just four players to go 3-0 in Raleigh, the other three being Justine Fournand and Louise Rydqvist of South Carolina, the 120th- and 54th-ranked amateurs in the world, respectively, and Vania Simont of N.C. State. 

The Illinois native followed that up with a tie for 15th at +3 at Sedgefield, a major leap from her tie for 49th (+19) in the 2022 event.

For much of her college career, Furtney’s Achilles’ heel had been the big number. A double here, a triple there, and 72s would turn into 74s and 75s would turn into 77s. But thanks to improved accuracy off the tee — to go along with her typically impressive length — and refined iron play, the St. Charles North alum has kept herself in the rhythm of the round in recent weeks.

“The accuracy is huge, just because a lot of the courses we play, the greens are really tough. I mean, Sedgefield’s a great example of that, where it's pretty nice to have wedges into the greens a lot of the time,” Furtney said.

Most players have go-to shots. Furtney is no different, saying she usually shapes the ball right to left. Yet that has changed a bit recently, as the senior said her body and range warmup often dictate the shots she elects to play once she tees off. 

If that leads to a fade, often the shape that is easier to control, then so be it. 

“I'm able to just really pay attention to what shots I need to hit when. I think at heart, I'll always like to play a draw,” Furtney said. “But I've had rounds recently where I play a fade, or at least I feel like I'm gonna hit a fade the whole entire time.”

Furtney is not the lone senior. Shepherd, despite being named All-ACC, is coming off a disappointing tie for 45th at ACCs, a performance that featured a second-round 81. 

After that “wake up call,” Shepherd is moving forward with one improvement in mind.

“I realized that my distances are a little off,” she said. “I was carrying a lot of the greens, and at Sedgefield, there's more consequences for that than at most courses.”

Shepherd said that with temperatures heating up, and her swing changing over time, the ball is simply flying farther than before. That makes dialing in her yardages a top priority, something that many golfers do with the help of a TrackMan, a radar device that records the characteristics of a ball in flight. 

Shepherd has a different approach, however. “I don't feel like the range and range balls emulate the real world that well, so I always do it on the course,” she said. 

It’s a strategy that the former U.S. Girls’ Junior champion has used since her childhood in the Hoosier State. Shepherd grew up on a golf course, and thanks to having her own golf cart, she “lived on the course.” Once she got to college, though, she had to adjust to not being able to go onto the green as often. But as the semester closes, more opportunities to snag a tee time will be there.

“With classes letting up a little bit, it's easier to get on the course, and hopefully take advantage of that,” Shepherd said.

With their time as undergraduate students coming to a close, Furtney and Shepherd are focused on what is next. The two have known each other since the latter visited the former in Indiana during their junior golf days. Now, they head into their third postseason, ready to go.

“It's similar to all the years previously, in terms of, we kind of like, go hard, all of March and April, and then we kind of have some time to breathe and regroup,” Shepherd said.

‘Use that experience’

More playing opportunities will surely benefit Brinker, whose preference for on-course work mirrors Shepherd’s. Coming off a runner-up finish at ACCs, the Delaware native is in form, and will prepare for regionals as the top Blue Devil.

Brinker acknowledged that range sessions help with the technical parts of her game, but practice rounds are “the way that I prepare best, not overthinking and [instead] visualizing shots and stuff that you can't really get at the range.”

As for what area of her game she is focusing on, Brinker mentioned her short game. Given her length and accuracy off the tee, the junior can pick apart most courses with her A-game. But not every round will feature her A-game, which makes creativity and touch around the greens all the more important. And those are skills best honed out on the course. 

“Hopefully, we can get to the point where we're just playing a lot and really focusing on scoring,” Brinker said. 

This being her third year at Duke, Brinker has seen all levels of college golf. She was part of a national semifinalist team as a freshman, was the conference individual medalist as a sophomore and now heads into regionals as the program’s most consistent player as a junior. 

“Freshman year was huge for us to be in the position we're in now, where we can sort of use that experience to hopefully help us do better in the postseason this year,” Brinker said. 

Brinker shared that freshman year experience with Chen: The two are always at each other’s side. Studying, practicing and playing is often a joint effort, and despite the competition between the two, Chen acknowledged that “being in the same grade really helps.”

“Whenever we're on the course, obviously we want to play better than each other, but we're also going to be happy for each other when we play well,” Chen said.

Until ACCs, Chen had put together a mediocre spring. Solo 43rd in the Bahamas, an absence from the lineup at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate in Hilton Head, S.C. — Chen failed to qualify for the event — and joint 44th in Georgia were her finishes in stroke-play events. But once she arrived at Sedgefield, her stellar play in the 2021 ACC Championship (also at the famed Donald Ross layout), things were different.

After an opening 75, Chen bounced back with rounds of 71 and 68, leaping into the top 10 with two birdies and an eagle in her last four holes during the third round. It was another example of Chen’s still-developing ability to overcome struggles.

“From freshman year to junior [year], I feel like I'm more positive on the golf course,” Chen said. “And just like, I've decided to be happier on the golf course, rather than getting down on the bad shots and the bad holes. Just putting it past me and just enjoying my time on the golf course, and just realizing it's just a sport, like it's not life or death or anything.”

It’s a mentality that pays off in pressure-laden situations. Regionals fits that bill.

“We all want to go to nationals, and so the pressure of regionals and making a mistake, you could blow that up in your head if you make one mistake. So having that perspective I think is huge,” Brinker said. 

‘Embracing the suck’

This will be Andie Smith’s first regionals. The freshman from South Florida, who said that playing for Brooks at Duke is “a dream come true,” went 2-1 in Raleigh, tied for 15th at ACCs and won her match against Melena Barrientos of Clemson. Not quite your everyday freshman. But like all freshmen, college has been an adjustment for Smith. Doing your own laundry, figuring out dinner plans and juggling all your classes are a few of the challenges the Benjamin School alum mentioned. And that’s all before mentioning her role in one of the top women’s golf programs in the country. It’s a lot.

Thanks to her teammates, though, Smith has figured it out. 

“The team helped me adjust to college life so much quicker than the average freshman,” Smith said. “And I think that's why I was able to find success early on compared to my peers, freshmen wise. And so they were great, they were always there for me.”

In golf, a team score is just a collection of individual scores. However, the cycle of team support leading to improved play, which then leads to improved team performance, is a real one. And while it admittedly took time, Smith has bought into that concept. 

“It's hard to grasp, especially coming from playing individually all throughout junior golf, and then all of a sudden you have a team,” Smith said. “Coming to realize that the best way that I can help the team is just by playing my best game.”

As for what her “best game” entails, Smith mentioned that her full swing has long been a strength, but since her arrival on campus, short game has been the focus. Everything coming together in golf is nearly impossible — one of the most famous golf books of all time is titled Golf is not a Game of Perfect by sports psychologist Bob Rotella, after all. But Smith keeping at it may just pay off in a key moment sooner rather than later.

“I think just being a golfer in general, it's just enjoying the process of embracing the suck throughout just playing….” Smith said. “You're always finding something to improve upon. But it's those times where all parts of your game come together that make it all worth it.”

“She reminds me a lot of myself, especially freshman year, trying to take it all in and wanting to do so well, in every single aspect,” Shepherd said.

‘All of a sudden, it clicks’

Less than a week remains until regionals begin. Balancing finals and prep for the biggest event of the season is a challenge, for every player. From Furtney’s left-to-right ball flight, to Shepherd’s distance control, to Brinker and Chen’s knockdown iron shots and to Smith’s short game, the specifics of their practice will differ. 

But the goal remains the same. 

“I came to Duke wanting to win a national championship,” Shepherd said. 

“I want to win everything,” Furtney said. 

To get there, though, a patient approach is needed. Each member of the starting lineup referenced it in some way, shape or form, and it clearly has taken time for each to adopt that mindset consistently.

“I remember playing basketball, I'd always be playing in the game, like, ‘gosh, I just want to beat these girls so bad, and win so bad,’ but in golf, you have to make yourself not think like that,” Shepherd said. “You just really have to be focusing on one shot at a time and not get too far ahead of yourself or thinking about the results, which is definitely hard.”

A year ago, the Blue Devils came up one shot short of advancing to NCAAs. Brinker and Chen mentioned that getting to Arizona as freshmen made missing out as sophomores even worse. Shepherd said the whole season was a struggle. Duke only had five on the roster — Furtney, Shepherd, Brinker, Chen and Rylie Heflin, who has logged a tie for 30th, tie for 44th and solo 60th in three events this spring.

Now, the Blue Devils have momentum. The addition of Smith, who Shepherd said “totally blew our expectations out of the water,” added internal competition in qualifying. And sure, Duke might not be on the short list of favorites — No. 1 Wake Forest and No. 2 Stanford hold that distinction, with the Cardinal a true threat to become the first repeat champion since the Blue Devils won three straight titles from 2005 to 2007. 

But at just the right time, Duke is playing its best golf, and has a chance to make some noise. For Furtney, Shepherd, Brinker, Chen and Smith, that’s all you can ask for.

“Sometimes people don't play well for a while, and then all of a sudden, it clicks and that's great for team golf,” Shepherd said. “And you just gotta hope that everyone's clicking at the same time this time of year.”

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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