By John Roth, GoDuke The Magazine
Hall of Fame coach Dan Brooks took the Duke women’s golf team to the NCAA national championship tournament last month for the 29th time in his 35 years, capping off a rare spring season in which the Blue Devils had not won a team title.
Not that Brooks was even mildly concerned about that aspect of his squad’s ledger. With a couple of runner-up showings early and a pair of third-place finishes at the ACC tournament and NCAA regionals to go along with a No. 1 ranking at one point, Duke had crafted a solid body of work on its path to nationals.
“The fact that we hadn’t won didn’t really…I didn’t think a lot about that,” Brooks said. “It’s more about development of players, where are their games, how are we now. We did a lot of great stuff in the spring. A lot of people were doing good work on their swings and on their minds and made great gains on their mental side.”
Those gains showed out during six days at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., where the Blue Devils came up with the spring victory that matters most. After placing second among the 24 schools across 54 holes of stroke play, Duke turned it up another notch in the decisive match play portion of the tournament. A series of clutch 3-2 wins — over Stanford in the quarterfinals, Arizona in the semis and Wake Forest in the final — netted the Blue Devils the 2019 national championship.
“I guess you’d call it a bit of a peak,” Brooks reflected, about a week after being presented the NCAA trophy for the seventh time in his career. “We weren’t there yet (earlier in the spring), but we didn’t need to be there in April. We needed to be there in late May. It’s not like I have some science to peaking then — golf’s a little weird that way — but it seems like we came together when we needed to.”
Duke reached the ultimate peak when it edged ACC rival Wake Forest in the championship match, but the two summits scaled just before that were equally impressive and required a combination of several sciences — psychology, physics and chemistry among them.
Quarterfinal foe Stanford, the No. 7 seed of the Elite 8 teams, fielded a lineup with two of the best players in the tournament: Andrea Lee, No. 4 in the Women’s World Amateur rankings, and Albane Valenzuela, No. 8 in the world. Duke All-America Jaravee Boonchant took Lee to 19 holes before falling, while Blue Devil freshman Gina Kim knocked in a birdie putt on the 18th green to upset Valenzuela and key her team’s win.
Kim came up with another big win on the final hole to edge Arizona senior Bianca Pagdanganan in the semifinals, securing her team’s victory over the defending NCAA champs. Kim’s approach out of the bunker to set up a birdie putt on 18 may have been the shot of the entire tournament. All three Duke wins vs. the Wildcats were decided on the 17th or 18th hole.
Then in the national final against No. 5 seed Wake Forest, the Blue Devils had to come up with two more extra-holes decisions before they could hoist the championship hardware. Boonchant upset the No. 1 amateur in the world, Wake’s Jennifer Kupcho on the 19th hole, and Miranda Wang got the clinching match over Letizia Bagnoli on the 20th hole to ignite her team’s celebration.
Boonchant and Wang had lost their individual matches against both Stanford and Arizona before their wins against Wake — Boonchant to the No. 4 player in the world from Stanford and to Arizona hero Haley Moore, who had made the tournament-winning birdie for the Wildcats last year.
“I put Jaravee against Kupcho partly because she had lost the first two matches,” said Brooks, outlining his strategy for taking on the Wake star who won the NCAA individual title last year, claimed the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur this year and would turn pro just before the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open. “Somebody as tough as Jaravee is will fight tooth-and-nail to the end, and the fact that she had lost two gave her a better chance to beat Kupcho, I thought. You could argue that she played our toughest opponents in the tournament. I felt like she was going to get one of those people.
“And Miranda came back very nicely on her first matches so she was already showing a lot of really great stuff, so I wasn’t surprised that she turned her final match around. She was two down in that one and came back and won.”
“I felt like I was mentally prepared to turn the match around,” Wang said. “I didn’t start well but on the back nine I had a lot of chances. There are a lot of really tricky holes that you need to be patient with and believe what you thought about and what you decided to do.
“This morning (in the semis), I was 4-down after 13 but I was able to turn. I was able to win three holes in a row, almost turn it around…So I knew my game was there and my mental ability to turn this game around was there.”
Wang was the prime example of a player who had been making positive gains on the mental side of the game to complement her picturesque swing, and Brooks tried to keep that going by walking with her the entire round vs. Wake Forest. But the rest of his lineup also demonstrated the fortitude necessary to deliver under pressure, with junior Ana Belac going 3-0 in match play while Kim and senior Virginia Elena Carta were 2-1. Boonchant, who placed fourth individually in the ACC and seventh in the NCAA, was later named a finalist for the Honda Award for golf.
“The number one thing about this team is they’re tough, mentally and physically, and that’s what paid off in the championship,” Brooks noted. “You needed both because the golf course was very challenging, the days were really long with all the weather delays, and there are a lot of hills out there and they’re using pushcarts. This team kills it in the weight room and that (strength) paid off. They were mentally and physically in shape and ready to play that tournament.”
Those qualities were most evident over the final half of the final round vs. Wake, as Duke at one point trailed 4-1 on the back nine before claiming the 3-2 result against the team that had racked up an 18-stroke margin over the Blue Devils in winning the ACC title in April.
“It’s so easy to give up in subtle ways. You don’t really even know you are doing it,” Brooks explained. “You’re tired, you’ve got only a handful of holes left and you’re one or two down. It’s so easy to soften a little bit, and in essence you are giving it away if you soften at all. That’s what impressed me the most about these players. They didn’t soften. We were behind in quite a few of the matches in the match-play portion. We got down, got it back to even and then extra-holes winning. That takes a lot of guts, keeping your chin up when you are ready to give a little because you’re tired.”
The national title was Duke’s seventh in the last 21 years, dating back to 1999, and the first since 2014. Brooks’ first six NCAA crowns came when the tournament was decided solely on stroke play. The format changed in 2015, using stroke play to determine the top eight teams for match play. Duke has advanced to the Elite 8 all but one year since the switch, and reached the semis for the third time in five years this spring, before claiming its first title under the match play format.
The result gave Brooks his 136th tournament title overall, by far the most of any coach in the sport, and made him the first coach to win national crowns in both the stroke and match play eras.
The finish also provided a rare career bookend for team leader Carta, as she had claimed the NCAA individual title as a freshman in 2016. Only three other Blue Devils have won both team and individual NCAA crowns (Candy Hannemann, Virada Nirapathpongporn, Anna Grzebien).
“It has been a dream of mine since freshman year to win it as a team,” said Carta, who led off Duke’s lineup and had wins vs. both Stanford and Arizona before falling on the 20th hole against Wake. “Obviously to do it my senior year, to close out my college career, it’s something very special to me…It’s a special team, and cheering this big thing with the team has been so much fun. We’ll remember forever — the memories will never go away.”
Duke’s NCAA Women’s Golf NCAA Titles
|Year||Site||Format||Margin||Top Individual Finisher (Place)|
|1999||Tulsa, OK||54 holes||
|Candy Hannemann (2)|
|2002||Auburn, WA||72 holes||+6||Virada Nirapathpongporn (1)|
|2005||Sunriver, OR||72 holes||+5||Anna Grzebien (1)|
|2006||Columbus, OH||72 holes||+10||Jennie Lee (2)|
|2007||Daytona Beach, FL||72 holes||+15||Amanda Blumenherst (4)|
|2014||Tulsa, OK||72 holes||+2||Celine Boutier (2)|
|2019||Fayetteville, AR||AR match play||3-0||Jaravee Boonchant (T7)|