Duke’s Virginia Elena Carta starts Birdies for Babies program to give back

SYLVANIA, OH - JULY 12: Virginia Elena Carta of Italy poses for a portrait prior to the Marathon Classic Presented by Owens Corning and O-I at Highland Meadows Golf Club on July 12, 2016 in Sylvania Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Duke’s Virginia Elena Carta starts Birdies for Babies program to give back

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Duke’s Virginia Elena Carta starts Birdies for Babies program to give back

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Virginia Elena Carta, an easy-to-like Italian with a brain as big as her heart, will leave Duke University next spring with so much more than a national championship ring.

College golf doesn’t have the allure it once did. The best players skip it altogether. The next-best generally stay for a season or two. Those who experience the kind of first-year success that Carta enjoyed – NCAA individual championship followed by a runner-up finish at the U.S. Women’s Amateur – usually bolt to the nearest exit.

Carta, however, stayed. And what followed wasn’t easy, as she fell ill with tonsillitis her sophomore year and suffered an elbow injury. Junior year, with her tonsils removed, chest and shoulder pain popped up, likely caused, she said, by poor form in the weight room.

But rather than sulk in pity, Carta made lemonade, and lots of it. She poured herself into her major, environmental sciences and policy. While living in Milan as a small child, Carta spent much time in her grandfather’s vegetable garden, sowing seeds and harvesting the crop. Her honors thesis centers around that love of agriculture and studying sustainable development models for rural areas.

She recently flew to Oxford, England, as one of 12 finalists to interview for a Rhodes Global Scholarship. Carta chose Duke as much for the academics as the golf program’s elite record and took full advantage of everything the school had to offer.

When she couldn’t compete for the Blue Devils, Carta didn’t just bury her head in books. She came up with a way to leave a lasting mark.

“In these very long downtimes, I realized how thankful I was to be part of the Duke family, and being a student-athlete we are so privileged,” she said. “What we sometimes don’t see is that we are part of the Durham community as a whole. Duke is a small part of it. Probably we are not doing enough to give back to the community that is hosting us.”

After that outstanding freshman campaign, Carta stayed on through the end of June taking classes and did some volunteer work at Duke Children’s Hospital. Through that came the idea to start a year-round fund-raising effort that would benefit the hospital’s Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care units.

Birdies for Babies launched last January and raised $10,565 over the spring semester. This season the Duke men’s team joined the effort. The programs combined to raise just shy of $7,000 in the fall semester, a number that will rise significantly in the second half of the season.

Pledges start at $0.50, and high-pledge increments are welcome. Eagles count as two birdies, an albatross is three birdies and a hole-in-one equates to four birdies. Over the course of four tournaments in the fall, the women’s team notched 193 birdie equivalents and the men’s team competed in five tournaments and notched 283 birdie equivalents.

Carta said the team visited the Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care units last month. For many, it was their first time.

“I can promise you it was a very humbling experience,” Carta said.

The only senior on Duke’s team, Carta is confident her teammates will continue the effort after she graduates. Ultimately, she’d love to see all sports on Duke’s campus find a way to participate.

“What more could you hope for in a person than for her to be academic, giving and also a successful athlete?” asked Duke coach Dan Brooks. “It’s pretty special.”

Finally healthy and looking forward to a professional career, Carta has one last chance to make it a bookend of championship success at Duke.

The Blue Devils closed out the fall season with back-to-back victories at the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational and at Landfall Tradition. Carta and freshman Gina Kim took a share of first at the Landfall, Carta’s first college victory since she won the 2016 NCAA Championship in record fashion.

Carta said her game right now is similar to the one she had as a fresh-man. She’s still a solid ballstriker who ultimately needs to make more putts.

“What was different is that during nationals I was very relaxed,” she said. “I had no expectations and I was just a very happy person. I think that teaches me a lot about how aware of yourself you have to be to be able to play golf. … What’s really going to make the difference is how relaxed I can be, and how truthful to myself I can be.”

One thing is certain: She won’t let an opportunity go to waste. Gwk

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