By Lisa Antonucci
When Jenny Chuasiriporn, then a 20-year-old rising senior at Duke University, sank an improbable 40-foot putt at the 72nd hole to force a playoff at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open in Kohler, Wis., little did anyone realize the ripples would be felt all the way to Durham, N.C.
No, it wasn’t the start of a revolution, but definitely the beginning of a remarkable evolution in the Duke women’s team, which, for the second time in four seasons, has earned the top spot in Golfweek’s preseason rankings. Even though Chuasiriporn would lose the playoff the next day, her magical putt and all the international attention it delivered instantly helped elevate Duke’s program to a higher tier. And soon, it was almost as if the program had discovered a higher gear, accelerating from a quiet, little NCAA also-ran to a colossal perennial power.
All thanks to 40 feet of real estate on some undulating green in Wisconsin.
“It was like the ‘shot heard ’round the world,’ ” said Auburn coach Kim Evans, whose own Tigers (ranked preseason No. 2) have been chasing the Blue Devils’ women’s team since. “They keep coming out every year more energized and focused. They have that intensity right from the beginning and just don’t stop all year long.”
The autumn after Chuasiriporn’s phenomenal summer – she also was runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur – the Blue Devils boasted the best recruiting class in the country. Not only did they lure the country’s top junior, Beth Bauer, who will be an LPGA rookie in 2002, they also added Brazilian star Candy Hannemann to the lineup. Bauer made it known one of the main reasons she chose Duke was to play with Chuasiriporn, a person she admired on and off the course.
That year, Duke won the 1999 NCAA title. Chuasiriporn finished what she came to Duke to accomplish. What she didn’t realize was that she actually started something much greater.
“Jenny showed us golf wasn’t everything,” said Hannemann, who finished runner-up in the 1999 NCAA Championship and won the individual title at Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., last spring. “She showed us how important the whole college experience is. Golf is an opportunity to get to know other people, and we should appreciate it.”
The Blue Devils, who for a third consecutive year will carry only six members, appear to have found a self-perpetuating formula of success: signing top recruits, collecting numerous victories and coming to terms with sky-high expectations.
Case in point: In the 2000-01 season, Duke finished first in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings for the second time in three years, won nine team titles, captured its sixth consecutive ACC Championship, and boasted two first-team All-Americans, including Hannemann, who returns to Duke this year as the lone senior. The only blemish on Duke’s record came in the final event of the season, when Georgia walked away with the NCAA team trophy and the Blue Devils took second.
Duke’s players, however, do not cower from the high expectations that accompany each new season in Durham.
“I think all the players on our team are really comfortable with it, and enjoy that situation,” said Hannemann. “They are used to it and have been since they were younger. Everyone was either the top player in their country or in their state, and those are the players we keep wanting to have.”
The Blue Devils will feel the loss of Kalen Anderson, who performed consistently her last two seasons, but have filled the gap with Swiss star Niloufar Aazam-Zanganeh. She is a four-time Swiss Junior and Ladies National champion and her résumé includes international victories at the 2001 Spanish Ladies Amateur, 2000 Doral Publix Junior Classic and the 2000 Portuguese Ladies Amateur.
“I found her the way I have found several of my players these days: I listen very closely to the players on my team,” said Duke coach Dan Brooks.
Listening, said Brooks, has become the key in many ways when it comes to helping his team to succeed. Getting to know his players is of utmost importance to Brooks, which also is why he likes having a smaller squad than most.
“The important thing for me is to be able to get to know their games, pinpoint what to work on, and that requires a really small team,” Brooks said. “What I like is the idea of having really good players on my team and knowing we are talented from top to bottom.”
This year’s roster also includes sophomore Virada Nirapathpongporn, who played an extremely competitive schedule this summer and notched her first amateur victory at the Women’s Trans National. Juniors Kristina Engstrom and Maria Garcia-Estrada, and sophomore Leigh Anne Hardin fill out the roster.