Duke may have had the surprise performance of the 2018 NCAA Championship, but that showing proved to be a sign of things to come.
The Blue Devils came to Karsten Creek Golf Club ranked 28th in the country, but used a record third round to contend for medalist honors. Duke eventually cruised to match play and reached the semifinals, eventually bowing to Alabama.
The Blue Devils have built on that effort.
Duke captured the prestigious Nike Collegiate Invitational on Tuesday, earning its second consecutive victory early in the 2018-19 campaign. The Blue Devils have lost to just one of the 41 teams they’ve competed against in three events and have rocketed to No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise with how well we’ve started this year,” senior Alex Smalley said.
It shouldn’t be. Duke intermittently posted stunning low rounds last season and gained a major dose of confidence from its performance at NCAAs. The Blue Devils returned four of their five highest-ranked players, too.
But there’s more to it than that.
This season the team has emphasized “the little things” – such as better nutrition, proper sleep and more attention to detail in practice rounds.
“I feel like all the little things, they as a group realized that they can add up to something special on the scorecard,” Duke coach Jamie Green said.
Better eating habits have been a focal point, as the group has been working with the school’s sports nutritionist.
Each player has personalized hole-by-hole plans of what they should eat and drink during tournament rounds. The structured advice has appeared to make them more engaged during play.
“You’re just more mentally there,” junior Chandler Eaton said. “It’s amazing, you can really tell a difference.”
Another factor for Duke has been its long-term focus. The veterans feel team culture wasn’t a huge priority when they arrived, but that has changed.
Green has taken the squad on a preseason retreat each of the past two seasons as a way to build cohesiveness. Aside from a mini-golf adventure during this year’s retreat, the excursions cast aside any version of golf as the team participated in activities such as escape rooms and ropes courses.
The team also works with Greg Dale, Duke’s Director of Sport Psychology and Leadership Program, to help build chemistry. In one session with Dale last year, team members let deep personal matters out to one another, helping form an impenetrable bond.
“There were some tears, and that definitely helps bring you closer because if people are willing to show emotion around you, it means that they trust you and they treat you like family,” Eaton said. “It feels more like a brotherhood.”
That comfort level has helped focus a team that includes four international players. Sophomore Qi wen Wong, who hails from Singapore, might have the most unique backstory. He underwent two years of compulsory service in Singapore’s army before arriving at Duke.
There was a three-week stretch of military training where Wong didn’t have a bed, sometimes having to sleep in a trench. Green appreciates gathering such information as a way to bring proper perspective.
While it’s still early in the season, Duke shouldn’t lack confidence the remainder of the way.
The Blue Devils play with a fearlessness and don’t worry when they get to tournaments. Eaton had a 35-footer for birdie and the individual title at the Nike Collegiate Invitational and it actually calmed him down when he was informed he needed to make it for the win.
He drained the putt.
Sophomore Adrien Pendaries recalled Smalley telling the team before the second round at Nike that they were playing too cautiously and were capable of beating records out there with the talent on this squad.
Duke then posted the best second round in the field by four shots to take command.
“We just trust each other to go out and do our best,” Pendaries said. “We know any of us can go out there and shoot a really low score at any time.” Gwk