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TULSA, Okla. – When the chart-topping pop song “Happy” rang out over Tulsa Country Club’s loudspeakers on Friday evening, a stoic Duke team couldn’t seem to hold it in any longer. The Blue Devils, seconds removed from a team ambush of frontwoman Celine Boutier on the 18th green, began to dance.
Early week at the NCAA Women’s Championship was plagued by strong but typical winds across the Oklahoma plains. Duke managed to remain in the mix after each day, and finally surged into the lead in the third round. On Friday, however, Duke’s six-shot advantage evaporated quickly on the front nine. USC chipped away at the deficit, and the Trojans took the lead for the first time as the middle of the lineup made the turn.
“It was just a lot of fun to chase,” USC head coach Andrea Gaston said. “We finally figured out the front side.”
It seemed fitting that, in the last year stroke play will be used for this championship, the back nine became a horse race. Gaston stopped hitting refresh on live scoring and started looking at standards. It was like man-to-man defense.
By the time the day was down to nine holes, Duke head coach Dan Brooks had tried to engage every Duke fan he could see in the crowd. The Blue Devils got a good vibe from that support group, and they counted only two bogeys on the back nine. Every player finished that side at even or better. Seniors Alejandra Cangrejo and Laetitia Beck came in with rounds of 2-under 68. Two groups later, freshman Sandy Choi posted 69. The rest of the field gravitated toward No. 18, waiting for the finale.
“It is hard to describe what it feels like,” Cangrejo said. “I was dying. I was the first one to finish.”
At No. 16 tee, and in the anchor position, Celine Boutier was 2 under on the day and closing in on USC’s Doris Chen in the individual race. Boutier had birdied the par-3 14th, a hole surrounded by water and sand, to kick-start her charge.
Boutier consulted Brooks at that tee box, looking for strategy advice. With a two-shot lead, Brooks told Boutier to leave driver in the bag. She hit 3-wood off the tee, safely hit the green in regulation and sank a 7-foot putt for birdie. Chen kept firing at pins, trying to get the advantage back in USC’s favor.
Boutier and Chen traded pars at the 17th and all but solidified Duke’s victory. Still, Boutier, standing on an uneven lie beside a fairway bunker, took a hard line into the 18th green. It was her 17th green hit in the final round.
From there, she three-putted for bogey, but it was all Duke needed to win its sixth national championship in program history. Duke’s final-round 6-under 274 was its best of the tournament, and enough to hold off a 10-under 270 from the Trojans. Duke’s winning score of 10-over 1,130 on the par-70 Tulsa Country Club layout is the lowest four-day total in NCAA Championship history.
“To have us fall behind a team like USC … and then to have this group keep fighting…” Brooks said, post-round, before trailing off.
Boutier walked out of the scoring tent on Friday and burst into tears. She fell into Arizona junior Manon Gidali’s arms almost immediately, spewing quick French at her former French national team comrade.
“I always thought she was the strongest on the team,” Gidali said of Boutier. “She would always play last.”
Boutier’s tears fell in happiness for her team, not a close call in the individual race. Entering the national championship, she had won three of her past four starts, risen to No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and become a favorite in the player-of-the-year race.
A year ago, when Duke was runner-up at the NCAA Championship and Boutier was fourth individually, Brooks and assistant coach Jeanne Cho saw this potential in their freshman. She has come a long way since arriving at Duke with shaky English and a thick shell.
Cho, who speaks four languages including French, and Boutier are kindred spirits, and it was Cho who helped her through that first hard semester two years ago. Cho kept watching Boutier sink putts in the final round, and felt a big-sister kind of pride.
“She sank that putt (at No. 14) and that was an important time for our team for her to hang in there,” Cho said. “She sank that putt on No. 16 and I got rowdy again.”
Finally, Cho felt tears well up when she saw Boutier’s aggressive line to the 18th green and realized it was all happening.
In addition to a Frenchwoman, the winning Duke squad featured an Israeli, a Chinese player, a Colombian and a Californian. As Cho notes, they’ve had to become one another’s families and observe their cultures, and it’s made them closer.
Duke won this championship at Tulsa Country Club in 1999, when hail wiped out the final round, and Brooks remembers the team dynamic as being similar. The parts are all there – from Beck’s role as a fierce motivator to Cangrejo’s ability to help her team keep things in perspective to Boutier’s strong spirit.
“Every way you’d want a team to be great,” Brooks said, “they are.”
Earlier this season, the team called Brooks in for a meeting to discuss the way he was coaching. They wanted to see more of their coach in the fairways and wanted him to be more involved in their rounds. By nature, Brooks is hands-off in competition, even though working with players’ swings is one of his strong points.
Brooks cites that meeting as one of the most important moments for this team, which won four times in the regular season. At the national championship, Brooks got more involved, but not to his players’ detriment. He was careful not to interrupt a “zone moment.”
“If you queried anybody on my team, they’d tell you I’m pretty demanding,” Brooks said. “I expect them to be adults. I’m not afraid to leave them on their own.”
In Tulsa, Duke met the demand.