The drama departments at either of these universities could not have staged a production more compelling than that delivered by the Duke and Wake Forest women’s golf teams on Wednesday.
Yet in the end, well, dynasties are dynasties for a reason, and Duke rallied from behind to win its seventh NCAA women’s championship in overtime, three matches to two, at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark.
Three of the five matches, in fact, went extra holes, and the winning point belonged to Miranda Wang. Her par on the par-5 20th hole defeated Wake Forest’s Letizia Bagnoli, whose tee shot went in the water left of the fairway.
“I would just like to say that I’m very thankful to be on this team,” Wang, a sophomore from China, said. “Honestly, I was not just thinking about winning this hole, I was thinking that I’m very grateful I’m on this team. I didn’t do very well the first two matches so my teammates got me through a lot. So I was going to do this for my team.”
The architect of the Duke team, indeed its dynasty, is Dan Brooks, who just completed his 35th season as the Blue Devils’ head coach. For context, consider that Duke’s legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski has won five NCAA championships in 38 years.
“On the golf course, off the golf course, in our practices, in our training, in the classroom, taking care of each other, passion, commitment, extra practice, hard work,” Brooks said summing up his latest national championship team.
“They’re all special, they’re all wonderful,” he said. “They’re all a different group of people. Each is unique. This group was tight. They were really a united team.”
The agony of defeat, as the old ABC Wide World of Sports opener noted, is always the counter to the thrill of victory, and in this case probably none took it harder than Wake Forest’s standout Jennifer Kupcho. The No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, a winner most recently of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, Kupcho, after hitting her tee shot into a penalty area, bogeyed the first extra hole and lost her match to Jaravee Boonchant, a sophomore from Thailand.
Only a team championship eluded Kupcho, a former NCAA individual champion who was playing her last amateur event. She already has qualified for the LPGA and will make her professional debut in the U.S. Women’s Open that begins a week from Thursday at the Country Club of Charleston.
Kupcho never trailed until the 17th hole, when Boonchant made her first birdie of the day to go 1-up. Kupcho tied it again at the 18th, before losing when Boonchant made a three-foot par putt on the 19th hole.
“This golf course requires a lot of patience,” Boonchant said. “So just hang in there and keep doing what you were doing. First birdie I make really bring me back to the rhythm. It’s really an amazing opportunity and experience, working hard the whole year and it finally paid off.”
Even in defeat, it was an auspicious debut for Wake Forest coach Kim Lewellen in her first year with the Demon Deacons after serving as head coach at Virginia for 11 seasons.
“I knew this team was special the moment I went into the office the first time, not knowing any of these young ladies,” Lewellen said. “They embraced me as their coach. We wanted to be on this stage and compete and I’ll tell you what, it was an outstanding match. They [the Blue Devils] came out on top but I’m real proud of these young ladies.”
Wake Forest was leading for much of the afternoon and led four of the five matches when Kupcho went 1-up in her match at the 14th hole. But the Blue Devils were relentless in pursuit, beginning with Ana Belac, who produced the first point of the final, 5 and 3, over Vanessa Knecht.
Kupcho’s loss put Wake Forest behind, 2-0, but Siyan Liu countered by winning her match with Virginia Carta on the 20th hole and Emilia Migliaccio squared the final with a 1-up victory over Gina Kim.
So it came down to the Wang-Bagnoli match, and on the 20th hole, a par five, Wang took control with a precise tee shot and a second just right of the green, while Bagnoli’s tee shot stymied her somewhat behind a tree in the fairway. The match effectively ended when Bagnoli’s second shot splashed down left of the fairway, requiring a drop that left her with a difficult fourth shot, a long pitch. But the penalty stroke was too much to overcome.
It was an ignominious way to end an otherwise dramatic and memorable final. Too bad, as is often said, that someone had to lose. But when someone has to win, the best bet is to go with the dynasty.