Whitaker leads Duke in own unique way

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Alison Whitaker knows what makes her team tick. And if a “Little Mermaid” sing-along is what’s needed to produce optimal results on the golf course, then so be it.

The Duke senior has a musical method of team bonding. It fits her analysis of what it means to be an effective leader and worked for the Blue Devils, who won the NCAA Fall Preview on Oct. 25. The sing-along, which is now a fond memory from Whitaker’s freshman season, is just one of the ways she has helped the Blue Devils bond off the course in the past three years.

“I’m big into team morale and leading from the inside and having the freshmen contribute as much as the seniors do,” Whitaker said. “It’s more just encouraging them to find their own identity on the team.”

Whitaker gained early success with the Blue Devils, receiving ACC Freshman of the Year honors after maintaining the ninth-lowest stroke average for a freshman in Duke history. She remembers the ups and downs the team faced as Anna Grzebien, Mina Harigae and Amanda Blumenherst all moved on, and her personal struggle last year with a back injury.

Duke, No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, started three freshmen at Landfall Country Club. In Whitaker’s mind, it’s hard to hold this year’s team to the same standards as three years ago, when Duke won the last of its three consecutive national championships, because the competition has increased.

“It’s tough for people to guage when they’re not in college golf, when they’re not playing it themselves,” Whitaker said. “The field since my freshman year is probably three times as strong.”

Now, at the end of her final fall season with Duke, Whitaker is feeling no urgency to prove herself on the golf course. Neither is her team. Winless in a stroke-play event since the 2008 ACC Championship, Duke’s comeback victory at Landfall put the team back in the spotlight. But, Whitaker isn’t worried about whether her team is “back.”

“If anything, I think this will urge us to up our work ethic because we know that things are coming from all the hard work,” she said.

Part of what Whitaker wants to impress upon the freshmen is that one hole can mean a multiple-shot swing, and the team’s final-round performance at the Preview shows that. Whitaker birdied three of her last five holes to shoot 3-under 69, and the team put together seven birdies coming down the stretch for an even-par 288 total. Duke overcame a 10-shot deficit for the victory.

Coach Dan Brooks said the positive energy was a result of players being determined not to get down on themselves. As for the fall season as a whole?

“We haven’t changed anything,” Brooks said. “We’re just keeping with the process of getting better.”

Whitaker knows all about the taste of victory. And now, the team’s newest members do, too. 

“Easy to keep the faith when you see it happen,” Whitaker said.

• • •

Freshman to watch: Brittany Altomare hit her stride in the final round of the NCAA Fall Preview. The Virginia freshman finished second at the Landfall Country Club in Wilmington, N.C., with a 1-under 215 total.

The Preview was Altomare’s best outing this fall. The 18-year-old chalks up her performance to focus and a sustained sense of confidence over the weekend. Altmore, No. 95 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, has even more conviction in her game.

“I learned that I can compete with the best players and it just gives me confidence for the spring,” Altomare said.

Virginia coach Kim Lewellen said Altomare has been working to improve her putting, course strategy and mental game. Lewellen has paired Altomare head-to-head against teammates in practice, which caused the freshman’s toughness to come through. Lewellen said Altomare is comfortable playing at the top of the team, and has her pegged as “definitely a first-spot player.”

Prior to college, Altomare either played individually in junior events or on her high school’s boys’ golf team.

“It’s awesome because now you have teammates. If you’re down, they can pump you back up, and you’re playing for the team,” Altomare said. “It’s a great feeling. I love having teammates. I love college golf.”

• • •

Bowing out: After 22 years at the helm of the Mississippi State women’s golf program, it’s time for coach Christi Sanders to play some golf of her own. Sanders announced Oct. 22 that she would retire at the end of the 2009-10 season.

Sanders’ contract runs through 2011, but she will move aside after this season to take some time to herself and decide what to do next. Sanders plans to do a little of everything before she eventually begins looking for a part-time job, which she said probably won’t involve coaching or teaching, but might be in administration.

“I’ve been coaching ever since I got out of college, never had any time off,” Sander said. “I’d just like some time off for myself.”

Sanders presented the university with possible cadidates for a replacement, and said she will help with the selection of a new coach if asked.

The longest-tenured head coach at Mississippi State, Sanders was named district coach of the year once and Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year twice. She played collegiate golf at Mississippi State from 1982-87, and now hopes to enjoy golf as “entertainment and good exercise.”

“Maybe I’m just going to open up a new chapter, but I don’t know just what that chapter is just yet,” Sanders said.

• • •

photo

Sherlyn Popelka won the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown by two shots.

Five questions with Arizona freshman Sherlyn Popelka

1. Arizona won the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown last week. The Wildcats had not won a team title since 2003, a total of 66 events played. Were you aware of that streak? And how does it feel to help the team snap the drought by winning the tournament individually?

I wasn’t aware actually. I knew they hadn’t won in a little bit but I was really, really excited that we pulled through and won.

2. You speak several languages. Which one do you like the most? Which one was the hardest to learn?

I would say Swiss-German because it’s like a dialect off of German. There’s no real grammar to it.

3. What’s story behind the small stuffed animal cow on your golf bag?

I’ve had the cow on every golf bag I’ve ever had. It’s with me through everything. Somebody really close to me gave it to me – my grandmother.

4. Not many people know you were a competitive figure skater. How has that helped with golf?

I skated when I was younger, but I wouldn’t call it competitive. I skated for six years, but it wasn’t anything like golf where I was really serious about it. Whenever I do anything, I try to do it to the best of my abilities.

5. You are originally from Switzerland. What is golf like in Switzerland? Who is the most famous golfer from Switzerland?

It’s picking up. Growing up it wasn’t that big, but now there’s more interest and more people are playing. It’s just during the winter we can’t play at all so it’s kind of a short season. Evelyn Orley, she played on the tour.

• • •

A look ahead...

What: Turtle Bay Resort College Invitational

When: Nov. 2-4

Where: Turtle Bay Resort (Arnold Palmer and George Fazio Courses), Kahuku O’ahu

Why it’s important: Many teams are heading into the off-season after excitement peaked at the NCAA Fall Preview last weekend. Hawaii has drawn a field of 18 mostly West Coast teams, and this could be a great way for USC, No. 8 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, to prove its better than its 16th-place finish at the Preview.

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