In the Feb. 23 issue of Golf World, my Amateur Spotlight story explored how Duke's streak of consecutive ACC women's titles might be coming to an end this April at 13. As I wrote in the magazine, it's not so much that the Blue Devils have fallen on hard times--although if the back problems that forced Alison Whitaker to sit out the last two rounds of this week's Central District Invitational persist, leaving Duke with just four healthy golfers, there will be definite issues in Durham, N.C.
No, it's the improved play of the rest of the conference's programs, most notably Virginia, Wake Forest and North Carolina, that suggests Duke's superiority is no longer a complex for the rest of the league. All three schools are ranked in the top 13 in the Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll and all have the depth to at least challenge, if not win, the ACC crown.
In talking to the coaches at each school, they all were quick to point out that Duke's benchmark has been what has pushed their programs to improve. "And a lot of those times in those years [Duke] was No. 1 in the country," said Wake Forest women's coach Dianne Dailey. "That's a pretty high standard. But we always kept trying to get there."
I'm particularly intrigued with the story out of Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Demon Deacons. At the start of the fall season, it looked like Wake Forest was anything but a serious national contender, finishing ninth at the NCAA Preview and 14th at the Mason Rudolph Championship. "We were not managing the course very well," Dailey, in her 21st year coaching at Wake, admitted. "We were making a lot of mental mistakes, a lot of bad decisions on the golf course."
After the Mason Rudolph, Dailey held a team meeting to address the issue, a discussion that became a turning point in the season; afterward the Demon Deacons proceeded to win the Lady Tar Heel Invitational and Landfall Tradition to close out the fall. They then started the spring by flying across the country and posting an impressive second-place finish at the Northrup Grumman Regionals Challenge in California.
Five Wake players--seniors Nannette Hill and Jean Chua, junior Dolores White, sophomore Natalie Sheary and freshman Cheyenne Woods--have had top-10 finishes in 2008-09, with Allie Bodemann also pushing for a starting spot.
According to Dailey, practices have been fun but more competitive than in recent years. A key reason for that increased energy has been the addition of assistant coach Robin Walton. You could make the argument that Walton, an assistant at Florida from 2000 to 2008, was the biggest off-season recruit Dailey landed.
"She's added a lot of new ideas [to practices]," Dailey said of Walton. "She has 20 years of playing experience and eight years of coaching experience. She's by far the most experienced assistant that I've had. She brings a lot of enthusiasm and imagination and creativity to practices. She's been a very important addition to our team."
Best of all is listening to Dailey herself. The Hall of Fame coach sounds very excited by her group, and by the prospect of coaching in the future. While some of her colleagues have decided to get out of the field, citing the longer hours necessarily on the recruiting trail, Dailey says she has never been more committed.
"I think I'm going to be doing this for a while," Dailey said. "I don't have any plans to leave any time soon. You know you work hard to build a team and a foundation that you can just keep building on. And I think we're at that point now, where we can just add one or two students every year that really want to be here, really want to work. It's taken me a while to get to that point . . . I'm a little bit of a slow learner here. But it's been fun."