Last Thursday, Duke coach Dan Brooks did something unusual at practice. He read to his team an unflattering article that predicted his Blue Devils would not contend for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. Their 13-year winning streak would end.
“He brought it out to light a fire under our team a little bit,” said Duke senior Amanda Blumenherst.
It worked. Over the weekend, all five Blue Devils were practicing intensely on their days off. The team’s commitment warmed Blumenherst’s heart.
Duke will contend at the ACC Championship April 17-19 at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., only an hour’s drive from Durham. Whether it wins, however, is a different story.
Strange as it sounds, Virginia is the team to beat.
The Cavaliers, ranked No. 5 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, have met Duke (No. 10) only once this season (at the Duramed Fall Preview), with the Cavs coming out on top. Virginia has a 4-1 record against seventh-ranked Wake Forest and are 2-3 against a revitalized North Carolina (No. 13).
While the Cavs don’t have a superstar (no Virginia player is ranked inside the top 15), they have a solid core in Jennie Arseneault (20th), Whitney Neuhauser (26th) and Calle Nielson (31st). Senior Lene Krog, Virginia’s top player last season, struggled in the fall with a knee injury and had surgery in November. However, she should be more of a force in the postseason.
Indeed, the ACC is as strong as ever. Not a good year for Duke to be off its game.
How different is Duke this year? Chew on this stat: The Blue Devils have yet to win a stroke-play title this season. They’ve won at least one stroke-play title the past 26 years.
Brooks lost a player midseason for the first time in 25 years at the helm. Mina Harigae led the Blue Devils in her first semester last fall. Now she’s fourth on the Duramed Futures Tour Money list after two events.
That development left Brooks with five players on his team, putting walk-on Yu Young Lee in the lineup. In past seasons, Lee could be found sleeping in Brooks’ cart while her teammates won trophies. She will need to step up her game in a big way.
And Alison Whitaker, the affable Aussie who can be streaky, battled back pain much of the spring and withdrew from several events.
Perhaps the most surprising development on the Duke roster: Blumenherst, a three-time Golfweek College Player of the Year, wasn’t winning tournaments. In fact, she wasn’t even close.
Blumenherst finally broke through earlier this month at the Lady Gator Invitational, where she battled Scotland-like conditions in Gainesville, Fla., to claim her 12th career title.
“It would’ve been hard to look back on four years and have three such amazing years, and then end on a year that I didn’t play that great,” said a relieved Blumenherst, who surely needed the win.
She got up-and-down from a bunker, holing a long par putt, to win the Lady Gator individual title and send her team into a playoff against Auburn. The Blue Devils eventually lost, but the final-hole theatrics reminded Blumenherst of last year’s ACC Championship.
Then, playing in the final group with Virginia’s Nielson, Blumenherst could tell by the look on her teammates’ faces that an up-and-down on the final hole would be huge. Blumenherst didn’t know it at the time but the 5-foot par putt she holed on the 18th gave her the individual title and Duke its 13th consecutive ACC crown.
Nielson missed a 15-foot par attempt, leaving Virginia one stroke behind the perennial power.
“It happens,” said Nielson on Wednesday, only hours before she and her teammates were to leave for North Carolina. “We fell short. We hope not to fall short this year.”
ACC short shots:
• Blumenherst aims for her fourth consecutive ACC individual title. She has a stroke average of 70.67 and, strangely enough, has posted a 54-hole total of 212 each time she has played. This marks her first trip to Sedgefield Country Club.
• Duke has won the ACC Championship in 1984, ’85, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, 2000, ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07 and ’08, and a Blue Devil has won the individual crown nine of the past 10 years.
• Virginia junior Whitney Neuhauser leads the ACC with a 72.76 stroke average in 21 rounds.
• Virginia, Wake Forest, Miami, Maryland and Boston College are the only ACC teams who have won regular-season events this season.
• Duke’s regular-season record against top ACC teams: 0-1 vs. Virginia; 1-1 vs. Wake Forest; 0-1 vs. UNC.