When Duke won its seventh NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship on Wednesday after defeating Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest, the words “it’s about time” came to mind.
You see, Duke, despite having captured six previous national women’s titles, the last in 2014, had not won an NCAA Championship in the match-play era, which dawned in 2015. They never won with the Maguire twins – Leona and Lisa – despite Leona being the No. 1 ranked amateur woman in the world during her time in Durham, N.C. She won the Annika Award, the Mark H. McCormack Medal and was Global Golf Post’s female amateur of the year. But no NCAA title.
The Blue Devils came close on multiple occasions. They lost in the semifinals (2015 and 2016), didn’t make match play in 2017 and lost in the quarterfinals last season. But despite a wealth of talent, they could never get over the match-play hump.
This year’s championship was different.
The Blue Devils have only six women on the roster, an incredibly low number by Division I standards given the fact that five women play in each tournament. But the small group is an intimate group, a tight-knit, almost clannish team of scrappers who won two other tournaments in the 2018-19 season.
“The cool thing about this team is we went into all of our tournaments with the idea that any one of them individually could win, win the individual trophy, and that’s the kind of team that is a lot of fun.” – Duke head coach Dan Brooks
The team comprises freshman Gina Kim, sophomores Jaravee Boonchant and Miranda Wang, junior Ana Belac and senior Virginia Elena Carta. Hannah O’Sullivan was the team’s sixth player. She’s a sophomore.
“The cool thing about this team is we went into all of our tournaments with the idea that any one of them individually could win, win the individual trophy, and that’s the kind of team that is a lot of fun,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said. “You’re going to get contribution. It makes the pairing party a lot easier, because, you know, we really don’t have to sweat much on who plays whom. And that’s what it felt like, all season.
“We have a team of mature golfers, I guess if you want to call it that, where they can handle things that come their way on the golf course and from the air. I guess numerically, we have a young team, but we have a bunch of veterans on this team.”
The Duke squad is a veritable United Nations. Kim hails from just down the road from campus, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Boonchant grew up in Thailand. Wang is from Beijing, Belac is a native of Slovenia and Carta is from Italy. O’Sullivan is from Chandler, Ariz.
Each player served a purpose during the title run:
The Grizzled Vet
Brooks described Carta as the “glue” that held the team together.
“It’s not like she gets up in front of the team and gives a speech or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just the little interactions and that’s the glue that keeps it fun.”
She’s been around the block a few times, winning the NCAA individual title as a freshman in 2016 and finishing off her collegiate career with a team championship.
Carta lost the final match of her collegiate career, falling to Wake Forest’s Siyun Liu in 20 holes, but after losing she was on the sidelines cheering loudly for her teammates.
Whether Carta will pursue a future in professional golf is unclear. A bright and determined 22-year-old, she has been accepted into Cambridge for graduate studies – an honor exceeding anything she might do early in the professional ranks.
The Giant Slayer
In the second match of the final, Boonchant took down the No.1 amateur in the world, Jennifer Kupcho.
A relatively unknown outside of college golf, Boonchant never led until the 17th hole during that final match. In fact, Kupcho hadn’t been down in any match all week – until then.
Kupcho sat atop the World Amateur Golf Ranking and won of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur for a reason. One down with one to play, she made a par to Boonchant’s bogey to extend the match.
But a Kupcho mistake off the tee on the 19th hole opened the door for Boonchant.
“I mean, yeah, I knew that it was going to be a really tough match because she’s a really good player,” Boonchant said. “As you know, it’s match play and anything could happen. It’s just based on hole by hole. So coming to the match, I just wanted to trust my game, just like coach trusts my game. I wanted to believe that I could do it.”
Brooks added: “We all love Jaravee. Jon (Whithaus, Duke’s assistant coach) and I decided to put her up against some really good players because we know how good she is. She truly is cool under pressure. It’s great to watch her play short-game shots when it matters a lot. I think we’d all agree that we’d put money on her.”
Belac was the one Duke player to go unbeaten during the three rounds of matches. She defeated Stanford’s Mika Liu (1 up ), Arizona’s Ya Chun Chang (2 and 1) and Wake Forest’s Vanessa Knecht (5 and 3).
Ultimately, she became Duke’s cheerleader on that final day because of how early she won.
“I was really happy I could secure the first point, just to maybe get some more comfortable space to my teammates knowing that we had one point secured, and obviously it was a lot of fun cheering on them, supporting them, as we always do, and just watching them give their all and fight for their team was really impressive,” she said.
Kim sent the Blue Devils to the championship final when she matched Arizona’s Bianca Pagdanganan’s birdie on the 18th hole in the anchor match of Wednesday morning’s semifinals, thanks to a dramatic, 144-yard approach shot from a fairway bunker that trickled to within kick-in distance.
“This was definitely a new experience for me, but I saw my team cheering for me and I knew that they trusted me.” – Duke freshman Gina Kim
Brooks referenced that in his post-championship interview: “Gina Kim hitting that shot on 18, that’s ‘an old shot.’ I mean, you do that, doesn’t matter what age you are, you’re the kind of person that can go in a bunker and hit that shot. I think our game is like that. You see freshmen do incredible things.”
“This was definitely a new experience for me, but I saw my team cheering for me and I knew that they trusted me,” Kim said. “I knew that I was a good enough player to pull it off, and I’m very grateful that everything worked out that I wanted it to.”
In Wednesday afternoon’s final, Kim took Wake Forest’s Emilia Migliaccio to the 18th green but ultimately fell, 1 down.
But the freshman did her part in helping her team.
The Clutch One
Two down to Wake Forest’s Letizia Bagnoli through 14 holes in the final, Wang came back to force extra holes.
At the 20th hole, Bagnoli pulled her second shot into the water and took a long time figuring out her next shot. Wang remained cool – chit-chatting and giggling with Coach Brooks – maintained her composure and secured the clinching point for the Blue Devils.
“Yeah, Miranda has made some great gains on the mental side,” Brooks said. “Everybody sees her swing; it’s beautiful. She’s made her gains on the mental side.”
As the team will remind you, Duke’s women’s golf program has more national titles than Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the men’s basketball program.
So if Duke men’s basketball is the creme de la crème, what is Duke women’s golf?
For another year at least, they are reigning national champions.
Duke’s Miranda Wang, Virginia Elena Carta, Ana Belac, Gina Kim and Jaravee Boonchant celebrate with the trophy after Duke defeated Wake Forest for the Division I national crown. Photo: Michael Woods, AP
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