By Johnny Moore, GoDuke the Magazine
The Duke men’s golf team knew they had a chance to win each tournament they played in this spring, because they knew they had one low round in them.
It was a belief they had in not only themselves but in their teammates.
“This team knew what they were capable of,” head coach Jamie Green reflected. “They knew they had the talent. We didn’t have to talk about it. We knew we had stumbled some in the fall in tournaments, but this team also knew as a group they could go really low.”
Finding a really low round became a trend for the Blue Devils, dating back to April’s Stitch Intercollegiate at MacGregor Downs Country Club, where the Blue Devils jumped from fourth to first after shooting 18-under in the second round.
Later in the month, Duke vaulted five spots on the second day of the ACC Championships with a 12-under effort.
The theme would continue to hold true in the Raleigh NCAA Regional, as the Blue Devils found themselves tied for third — a leap from 10th just a day before — after going 12-under on the second day for the second straight tournament.
However, no one imagined it would happen again on college golf’s biggest stage — the NCAA national championship tournament at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Okla.
“Birdies can be contagious,” said senior Jake Shuman. “It’s hard on tree-lined courses to see what other guys are doing, but with parents around and coaches talking with you, you get a sense of what is going on with your teammates. Sometime you can see it in the body language of a teammate and it makes you want to go make some birdies.”
Day three of the 2018 nationals was that magical round for the Blue Devils as they carded the program’s best-ever NCAA round, dominating their way to the top of the leaderboard, shooting a sensational 276 (-12) to move to 10-under for the tournament heading into final round of stroke play.
Shattering the program’s previous low 18 at the NCAA Championships (4-under 284 third round in 2006), more impressively, Duke set the new Karsten Creek course record for 18 holes, topping Alabama’s 9-under 279, a feat accomplished just a day earlier.
In addition to setting a new record for 18 holes, the Blue Devils surpassed previous program lows for 36- and 54-hole performances in the NCAA Championships, which, prior to this season, were 586 (+10) and 871 (+7), respectively.
Moreover, whenever a team goes this low it is definitely a team effort.
Freshman Evan Katz had his best round of the event, shooting a 4-under 68 as Duke’s low man after combining for 6-over par through his first two days. The Washington, D.C., native was bogeyless for the round, snaring four birdies in the process. Three of those came within his first nine holes, including back-to-back on 17 and 18. With the 68, Katz landed himself on the list of individual low rounds for Duke in NCAA play, tying John Karcher (1990) for third lowest.
“Last two days, obviously the score wasn’t as good, but all the parts of my game were there,” noted Katz. “I was hitting it well, just getting to know the golf course a little better, getting used to the faster greens here. I continued to hit it in better spots and give myself more looks from the fairway.”
Sophomore Chandler Eaton fought to earn himself an impressive 3-under 69 after opening up play with a bogey on 10. He collected three more birdies through the remainder of his first nine holes, including consecutive makes on 13 and 14. Eaton topped off the day with an eagle on 18.
“This is what we practice for, and this is what we play for,” said Eaton, a native of Alpharetta, Ga. “That’s a cool thing that we showed up and got after it. Even though I’m physically exhausted and mentally exhausted, I found it somewhere inside me to put in a lot of effort, so I’m thrilled.”
Adrien Pendaries, another freshman, befriended the eagle once, making his second of the tournament on No. 1 shortly after making the turn. Securing three birdies in addition — combined with two bogeys on the day — gave Pendaries a 3-under 69 for his third round, moving him to 1-over for the championship.
“I think I was playing really good golf on the front nine, I just wasn’t really capitalizing on the opportunities,” admitted Pendaries, who hails from Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. “I turned at 1-under, playing some really good golf. It’s obviously really nice to shoot a 69 on a day like this. Since the start of the week, we haven’t really put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and today we did, so hopefully we can keep doing that. We have full trust in each other that we’re going to go out and play a good round of golf, so we just have to execute now.”
Junior Alex Smalley used a bogeyless first nine holes to catapult him to a 2-under 70, a round that featured five birdies for the junior. The Wake Forest, N.C., native found birdies on 12 and 18, and then another three times after the turn to negate three bogeys.
“Today I hit the fairways and the greens, so I gave myself chances, which was nice compared to the first day where it was a little rough at the start,” said Smalley, who won the individual medal at the 2016 U.S. Amateur with a total of 133 (-7), posting the second-lowest stroke-play total in U.S. Amateur history. “Played pretty solid all front nine...I got to 18 green and I looked at the scoreboard and I think we were 11-under through nine holes and the back is, I think, the tougher nine so it was really cool to see that everyone was playing really well.”
Shuman concluded his day with an even 72, carding a pair of birdies to balance out two bogeys. The veteran maintained level-headedness throughout, improving greatly on Sunday by shaving off nine strokes from his 81 (+9) effort on Saturday.
Green was very impressed with his team’s one-day performance — but not surprised.
“These guys have done an excellent job really all year just getting better and better at it — building on something that happened before,” said Green, now in his 10th season as the Blue Devils head coach. “It was a nice day out there, and it was fun to watch.”
The Blue Devils ended up in second place in the four-round stroke play portion of the championship and matched up with seventh-seeded perennial golf powerhouse Texas in the eight-team match play portion of the tournament that determines the national champion.
Green told Shuman at the pairings party the evening prior to match play that he would be going out last against Texas, which would put him heads-up against Doug Ghim, the No. 1 ranked amateur golfer in the world, runnerup in the 2017 U.S. Amateur Championship and low amateur at the recent Masters.
“I thought okay, I’m ready for this. There was a pit in my stomach for a moment, but then I calmed down and was really glad I was in this position,” explained Shuman. “I had played with Ghim in the regionals and knew him from other events, so I was actually looking forward to the match.
“I relish match play,” he continued. “I’m a guy that makes a lot of birdies, but can have a double-bogey pop up which just costs one hole, which I can go back and get with another birdie.”
Shuman said he was very relaxed when the match began. He did feel that Ghim was extremely focused, as he hesitated to shake Shuman’s hand to begin the match, and then did not speak the entire match.
Shuman got off to a great start, 4-up following the sixth hole, but as he suspected, Ghim fought back and the match came down to holes 17 and 18.
“I really wasn’t nervous walking up to 17 tee, I felt I had the momentum,” explained Shuman. However his tee shot went right into the woods and he had to pitch out while Ghim’s shot went into the water. Shuman still had to make a putt to halve the hole, bringing the match down to the 18th hole
“I never thought about our season being on the line,” said Shuman. “I thought I’ve done this a million times, I’ve hit a million fairways, hit a million greens and made a million putts.
“Coach and I went over the numbers. I got ready to hit my approach shot to the green and the Golf Channel guy with the microphone came running over just as I was getting ready to hit,” he explained. “I backed off, went back to the back and reset and then hit my shot.”
His shot landed just 25 feet from the hole and he was putting for eagle on the par 5, and a win for himself and the team over Texas.
“The hybrid into 18 was the best shot I’ve hit in my entire life,” he said. “I did not expect to make the putt, but when it went in I actually screamed ‘Come on,’ which I never do. I have never enjoyed anything on the golf course that much.”
The Shuman win combined with wins by Smalley and Pendaries gave the Devils a 3-2 victory over the Longhorns to send the Blue Devils into the national semifinals.
In the locker room following the match, Shuman said that Ghim was very cordial, told him great match, great putt and that he would see him down the road.
The Blue Devils fell to Alabama 5-0 in their next match that afternoon in the semis, ending their season — the second time in history they had lost in the semifinals, both times coming at the Karsten Creek layout. The last time was in 2011.
Despite the loss, the Blue Devils had some major accomplishments for the 2017-18 season.
They captured back-to-back tournament wins in April, finished fifth in a talent-packed ACC Championships field after shooting 20-under, and place second in the Raleigh NCAA Regional behind Texas.
The television exposure for the Blue Devils on Golf Channel in their quarterfinal victory over Texas was priceless as the Devils were competitive on the national scene with the likes of the Longhorns and eventual national champ Oklahoma State.
“We’re not looking for respect,” said Green, who has led the Blue Devils to two ACC titles and 20 tournament wins in his career. “We show up, and we give it the best we can and our guys did that this week. You earn respect, and they got it. I don’t think that many teams wanted to play Duke this week if I’m going to be honest with you. We had five guys that worked their tails off leading up to this event, plus Adam (Wood) and plus Ben (Silverman) coming in from out of town supporting. It was just such a tight knit crew that gave everything they could, everything they had.”
Green also commented on the appreciation he has for his trio of seniors, what they have meant to the program, and how they will impact Duke golf for years to come.
“We had three seniors here (Shuman, Silverman and Wood) that, I think, and no disrespect to anybody else from all the years of great seniors, but I think those three guys changed our program. I think from the day that they got here, and the growth that our program had in various ways, I think their legacy is going to be stamped in some ways, and not just because we’re going to have another semifinal trophy or an ACC trophy, but because of the bonds they created that the young guys yearn for. I didn’t really get emotional until those guys got emotional. When those guys were choked up, that’s when I got choked up. Losing is losing, that’s a part of it. But feeling what you feel when you have a chance to do it with other people, that’s what means a lot.”
Green was also tremendously proud of the fact the Blue Devils posted a 3.707 grade point average this semester, the highest since Green arrived as head coach.
Sometimes in life, the little things can mean the most. For Shuman it was a call from a friend following the tournament. His friend reminded him that one of the best professional golfers in the world now knew who he was — former Texas All-America Jordan Speith, who knew Shuman had been one the Blue Devils who defeated his beloved Longhorns.
Shuman and his Duke teammates definitely made a mark on the world of golf this year.
The end was very melancholy for Shuman and the other seniors on the team. Nevertheless, life in the world of golf goes on. With his college career complete, Shuman was able to return home for a weekend of rest and a few lessons from his golf teacher, prior to heading off to his professional career on the Mackenzie Tour — the Canadian PGA Tour. He teed off just eight days following the Blue Devils’ win over Texas in the Bayview Place DCBank Open presented by Times Colonist at the Uplands Golf Club in Victoria, British Columbia.