By Kyle Corwin, GoDuke the Magazine
If you want to know how far the Duke men’s golf program has come, look no further than the bottom of the cup on the 18th green of the Karsten Creek Golf Club.
It was there that a 25-foot Jake Shuman eagle putt in last year’s NCAA Championship would eventually fall, bringing down with it the then-No. 1 amateur in the world and the rest of the Texas Longhorn team. The result? Duke would punch its ticket to the NCAA semifinals for the second time in program history.
On that sweltering afternoon in Stillwater, Okla., you saw it all. You saw a quintessential leader display poise and grit. You saw the remaining quartet of a five-man lineup confidently await its fate, giving you no reason to think that fortune was on the side of anyone but the Blue Devils. What you saw most clearly, though, was that this moment was a turning point for the program.
On second thought, refrain from thinking of it as a turning point. This team has been proving itself for a while. This team is good. And it’s becoming more and more evident that it will only get better.
Think of it as a checkpoint.
Duke men’s golf, after all, is ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into the upcoming spring portion of the season, coming off a late-October, invite-only visit to Atlanta for the East Lake Cup, a bid earned only by advancing to the previous year’s NCAA semifinals.
Another bullet point on the program’s résumé.
A résumé that, over the last decade, has accumulated an impressive slate of accomplishments under head coach Jamie Green.
Green — who in 10 years at the helm has steered his teams to two ACC championships, nine NCAA Regional appearances, six trips to the NCAA Championships and 22 tournament titles — has placed Duke at the front of the conversation when discussing top programs in the nation.
“Coach Green is always professional, and continually looks for ways that he can improve the program,” said Shrish Dwivedi, one of two seniors on the current roster. “His best quality in my opinion, apart from how much he truly cares for each of us, is his ability to know when to step in and when to let us go. That optimal mix of structure and freedom is what I believe not only makes him highly successful as a head coach, but also makes the team engaged and excited every day.”
Green has also done an excellent job developing leaders both on and off the course during his tenure. With every passing year, a new senior class takes over and builds off the tradition and examples set before it, further illustrating the continual growth of the program and its leadership.
“Having been here for four years this spring, I simply try to always be ready to go for every workout, practice and meeting, hoping that my consistency will be a positive influence,” said Dwivedi.
Dwivedi’s senior counterpart, Alex Smalley — who has established himself as one of the best golfers in the country — is also coming down the home stretch of his Blue Devil career and acknowledges that, in his final year, he recognizes an opportunity to help guide his team to something it has never experienced in its history.
“Obviously it means a great deal to me to be a part of the rise of the program, but I have only had a small impact,” Smalley admits. “We have a very deep team so we all push each other to work harder and get better...I only hope that I can continue to contribute my side of the bargain in the spring. We got a little taste of (the national championship) last year, so I think everyone on the team, myself included, is looking forward to keeping up our good play in the spring.”
Having ambitions of winning an NCAA title cannot realistically be something that just any team decides to characterize itself with, though.
Duke men’s golf, however, has kicked down the doors and taken a seat at the table with the other perennial powerhouses to discuss what only a handful of teams truly have the opportunity to do: hoist a trophy at the end of May.
But what is it about this particular program that enables the individuals who represent it to confidently move forward with that mindset?
“This team has the most disciplined group of guys I have ever seen,” said junior Chandler Eaton. “Everything from nutrition and training to sleep and school work, these guys want the best for themselves. I also think that this team is way more blue collar than people think. We work and we work on the right things. I think every team's goal is a national championship, but only a few teams do the things that give them a chance at a national championship. I think this team is doing those things.”
Eaton knows personally what it takes to succeed at the highest levels, earning Honorable Mention All-America status (with teammate Smalley) after finishing tied for 15th in Stillwater as a sophomore in 2018.
It speaks to the well-roundedness of a team when you see freshmen and sophomores contributing and performing at the same caliber as the seasoned upperclassmen; and although the aforementioned quality of leadership has been regarded highly, depth — young depth — is something that is taking these Blue Devils to new levels they haven’t seen before.
Sophomore Adrien Pendaries has played a vital role in strengthening the lineup in his short stint as a Blue Devil, and understands that having that depth and adding to the collective stamina can help get the team over the hump of a strenuous postseason schedule that, like clockwork, weeds out the teams that lack it every time the month of May comes around.
“Winning a national championship would be an amazing achievement, but what we are most focused on are the daily efforts that will give us the best chance at achieving that goal,” Pendaries stated. “We will be focused individually on constantly improving our games. I think that if we achieve this level of detail in our preparation every day, we will be in a pretty good spot at the end of the year.”
Raising the hardware in Fayetteville, Ark., at the end of the 2019 season may or may not be in the stars for Duke. One thing is for certain though: the Blue Devils are in as good of a spot to do it as they have ever been.
By means of a collective effort put forth by both the coaching staff and student-athletes, Duke men’s golf has emerged as one of the best teams on campus, in the conference and in the country.
Rewind to the 18th green of the Karsten Creek Golf Club on that sizzling afternoon last May. Hours and a NCAA semifinal loss later, head coach Jamie Green stands in the same place he joyously threw his hat at the drop of his senior’s clinching-putt earlier in the day and tries to recap his thoughts on his team and its performance throughout the championship.
“I don’t think that many teams wanted to play Duke this week, if I’m going to be honest with you,” Green admitted.
If that was the sentiment at the end of last season, it’s scary to imagine the ferocity that the Blue Devils, one of the hungriest and talented teams in collegiate golf, will carry with them into the back half of this season.