Courtney Ellenbogen feels like she has trekked the Himalayas in her short amateur career. The peaks have been breathless – AJGA titles and U.S. Women’s Open appearances – and the valleys, well, loathsome.
The Duke freshman knows what it’s like to be respected within the game’s most elite circles. But she also knows how it feels to look into an opponent’s eyes on the first tee and see no fear.
“One of the most important things I have learned is (my) ability to come back from a really tough time,” Ellenbogen said.
The big numbers behind her, Ellenbogen is the competitive bulldog – er, Blue Devil – of old. Duke coach Dan Brooks has served as her swing coach since she started school last fall, and her game is on the rise.
“I was just amazed at how quickly she was able to get out of it,” Brooks said.
This is a comeback story still in progress.
Ivan Lendl, the former Grand Slam tennis champion, watched his daughter, Isabelle, go through a similar slump.
“It’s tough to watch,” said Ivan, signing an autograph at the U.S. Girls’ Junior last summer. “Whether it’s your kid or any other player. … I always had full confidence in (Isabelle).”
Ellenbogen got the same message from her father, Bill, who played for the New York Giants in the 1970’s: Stay positive. Bill Ellenbogen morphed from offensive tackle to personal cheerleader.
When Courtney talks about the 18-month slide that left her game unrecognizable, she doesn’t mention a single excuse. No personal tragedy, no mysterious injury, no mental breakdown.
She simply started missing fairways. The bad mojo crept down the rest of her bag until she had no idea where the ball was headed. Ellenbogen stands at 5-foot-2; consistency was the hallmark of her game.
Brooks boils it down to two things: overturning the hips on her takeaway and a dead-shut clubface. That led to an unruly hook and defensive golf.
During a practice round at the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur in Eugene, Ore., Ellenbogen realized she had a “serious problem.” She felt so uncomfortable on the golf course she pulled out of the tournament. This was a player who one year earlier had won the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, along with two other AJGA titles.
“For somebody of her character to back out of a tournament,” said Brooks, “she’s got to be going through absolute hell.”
The scores crept higher as the months went by. She received an sponsor exemption to play in the 2009 LPGA Michelob Ultra Open but took herself out. Two weeks later she failed to break 90 in the final round of the Thunderbird International Junior.
The valley seemed endless.
“Obviously, I wasn’t playing up to Duke standards,” she said.
Much to her relief, Brooks never showed his recruit any signs of concern. He had a game plan developed by the time she got to campus and together they explored the nuances of her swing. Ellenbogen clicked with her new coach because, as Brooks said, both “like to talk about why.”
“It was a real team thing,” Brooks said.
Ellenbogen grew up on Virginia Tech football, watching games she didn’t attend at her father’s Blacksburg bar – Bogen’s – while eating chicken tenders. (Virginia Tech does not have a women’s golf program.) She dabbled in gymnastics, soccer, swimming and baseball before deciding golf was her best bet.
A classically trained pianist, Ellenbogen does nothing half-way. She finished her first semester at Duke with a 4.0.
“It’s not as fun to do something mediocre,” she said.
Duke, with three freshmen in the lineup and no Amanda Blumenherst, seemed an unlikely winner of the NCAA Fall Preview. But they startled top-ranked teams with a dramatic come-from-behind victory to close out the fall season.
At the Harder Hall Invitational earlier this month, a player agent out scouting the field praised Ellenbogen’s solid game. She finished fifth that week in frigid conditions. Her classmate, Lindy Duncan, won the Dixie Amateur the week before. Brooks calls Duncan’s swing one of the prettiest he has seen in college golf.
The Duke name doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of opponents like it once did, but this is a rebuilding stage. Exhibit A: Courtney Ellenbogen.
Brooks is having as much fun coaching this team as any of his powerhouse squads. At the start of the school year, sophomore Kimberly Donovan made an incredibly honest statement that blew Brooks away: “Coach I haven’t worked hard for two years.”
“I will remember that as one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard a college player say to me,” Brooks said.
This young Duke team is refocused and on the rise. For Ellenbogen, college golf couldn’t have come at a better time.