Duke’s Whitaker smiling to the end
WILMINGTON, N.C. – Not 30 seconds after Alison Whitaker completed her second round Wednesday at the Country Club of Landfall, the weather horn sounded and play was called at the NCAA Women’s Championship for close to an hour. Fitting that Whitaker should hole her final putt just in the knick of time, because as far her college career is concerned, timing has been everything.
As storms set in, Whitaker stepped off the course with a 2-over 74, the second-best round for Duke on a day where the Blue Devils struggled to 15-over 303. Whitaker could never get on a hot streak, and after turning at even par, started the back nine with a double bogey at the par-4 11th. She three-putted at No. 16 and fought deep rough at No. 18, going 2 over in her final three holes.
The lone Blue Devil senior is at 5-over 149 for the week, and has been one of the top 3 scorers each of the past two days. The Blue Devils still will need a serious rally to reach the top of the leaderboard by the end of the week or Whitaker’s graudation will close a legacy, as she is the only current Duke player to have been a part of a national championship team. Perhaps Whitaker’s father, George, said it best mid-way through her second round: Leaving Duke might be the end of an era, but it also kicks off a different one.
At 24, Whitaker is one of the oldest players in the field. In her words, that’s “nearly 30.” Her path from her native Melbourne, Australia, to Duke was anything but typical. Whitaker tells it in a charming Australian brogue, thoughtfully delivering one quip after another.
She was paired with Duke commit Amanda Blumenherst at the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur when head coach Dan Brooks showed up to watch Blumenherst. Brooks also got a look at Whitaker, but didn’t know who she was, only that her swing and on-course demeanor were worth noting. It wasn’t long before Whitaker’s host family from that week contacted Brooks, just to make sure he was aware of her.
Whitaker made it to the semifinals at the Women’s Amateur and an article appeared in Golfweek the following week with a line noting Whitaker’s interest in playing college golf in the United States. That’s all it took to cram her inbox with e-mails from prospective coaches. In Whitaker’s mind, however, there was only one school for her.
“There was never any competition for me in terms of where I wanted to go,” Whitaker said about Duke, noting the university’s string of national championships from 2005-07 and its strong academics.
But one obstacle stood between Whitaker and becoming a Blue Devil: the SAT.
“I kept trying to impress upon her, we have a hurdle to get over here,” Brooks said. “It’s all just a great idea until you take the SAT.”
Whitaker approached the test with a carefree attitude, nailed it and became a Blue Devil right away.
In four years in Durham, N.C., Whitaker has never been Duke’s best player, what with three-time national player of the year Blumenherst and All-Americans Jennie Lee, Anna Grzebien and Jennifer Pandolfi carrying the load in previous years. However, as the sole senior on a young Blue Devils squad this season, the easy-going Aussie is responsible for many of the intangibles that have kept Duke among the nation’s elite teams.
“In different ways, she has shown the ability to keep her chin up and stay happy and to sort of affect the team in the same way,” Brook said. “... It’s really been a great positive effect on our team that goes beyond scoring.”
Through the years, Brooks and Whitaker have found the same wavelength. A three-letter text message – “Ali,” her nickname – is all it takes to remind Whitaker to be cautious of her surroundings, and to stay out of trouble when she’s not on the golf course.
On the flip side, Whitaker can’t say enough about Brooks’ extensive knowledge of the golf swing. As for her sense of humor? Well, Brooks gets that, too.
“It’s pretty messed up, so I’m not sure if that’s a credit to him or an insult,” she said.
Halfway through her final national championship, Whitaker has taken to referring to the team from the outside. She remembers the nerves she felt entering the season, knowing Blumenherst and Lee had moved on.
“I really didn’t have any idea of what to expect coming from the freshmen,” she said. “They’re really hard workers and they know what they have to do to play well and they do it, which is even better.”
After her final putt drops Friday, Whitaker will preserve her amateur status to represent Australia at the World Amateur Team Championship in October, something she missed out on two years ago when the tournament was held in her home country.
“It’s been a big goal of mine and I missed out by a hair last selection so it’s kind of just something that I really want to be able to check off the list,” she said, acknowledging that putting off a pro career could result in living off rice and noodles for the summer.
If that’s the price of donning the Aussie team uniform for one last amateur go-round, then so be it. Whitaker, afterall, will know when the time is right to go pro.