May 17, 2010

By Neil Amato
Special to

Like a confident player on a par-5 going for the green in two, Dan Brooks likes to take chances.

Brooks, Duke University's longtime women's golf coach, is pretty adept at risk management, at least when it comes to recruiting.

Twice this decade, the Blue Devils have won the national championship with five players on their roster, thanks in part to early pro departures. Ideally, Brooks would have seven players, so five was nerve-wracking. Still, he keeps his roster compact on purpose.

No one can argue the results. Duke heads into the NCAA Championships in its home state on Tuesday having won five national titles since 1999.

"It's a little bit of going for the jugular," Brooks said. "You don't break up scholarships. You take a big risk, but the reward is you get to give a full-ride scholarship to the players in the world who are worth it. You go after the best and pay `em what they're worth.

"Duke's an expensive place, so it works for us. If I was at a state school where it didn't cost so much to go ... then it would be a whole different deal. But if you want to do it at Duke, you've got to keep your team pretty lean."

The NCAA scholarship limit in women's golf is six, and most programs split those awards, giving percentages to most players and saving the full ride for only the top-notch recruits. Brooks focuses solely on the top recruits. One year at Duke - room, board and student fees included - was $49,895 in 2009-10, and Brooks thinks it's unfair even to relatively well-off families to split scholarships. "Then Dad's got a lot of money left to pay," he said.

Lately, Duke has been the East's only consistent winner in women's golf. Since 1987, the lone NCAA champions from east of the Mississippi have been Duke (five times) and Georgia in 2003. Since 1993, every women's title but one has been won by Duke or the Pac-10.

Once again, those teams from the West are the favorites with play set to begin Tuesday at the Country Club of Landfall in Wilmington, N.C. UCLA, Arizona State, Southern California and Arizona make up the nation's top four teams.

Duke is just behind them but by no means concerned with rankings. The Blue Devils rallied from 10 shots down on the final day of the NCAA Fall Preview - on the same Pete Dye Course - to edge top-ranked UCLA by one stroke.

Riding home with that trophy was one of the best feelings senior Alison Whitaker has experienced in golf.

"I think that was the first time we realized we could really do well with this team," Whitaker said. "That's probably the only trophy during the year that you really want to win: fall preview, played on the course where nationals are held. It's the baby step before nationals, and I think having those good experiences on the golf course was priceless for us."

She mentioned baby steps because of the Blue Devils' youth, with three freshmen in the starting lineup. While Lindy Duncan, Stacey Kim and Courtney Ellenbogen are highly regarded, the transformation from junior golfer to college golfer can test even the most talented players.

"There's so much more on their plate," Brooks said. "It's a much more self-conscious experience than being a junior golfer. You're aware of where you fit in, you have academic demands. You might be at practice, but you might not be there mentally. Summertime, playing junior golf, you're just playing."

Brooks, with Whitaker's help, has tried to stress patience to the youngsters. Don't try to make amends for that double-bogey in one shot.

"As you get older and you've been around golf enough and you've seen enough things happen, you don't only think patience is a great idea, you know it's a great idea," Brooks said. "You know it's the answer. Once you realize how crucial it is to stay patient and stay positive and always walk with confidence ... and just patiently wait for the good things to happen, that's the stuff you learn that you don't know when you come in.

"Whitaker's very aware. She's seen a lot of great things happen by being patient. She carries that message to our younger players. We got three freshmen in the lineup. They're really talented, great kids, work hard, and they all need to learn patience. They're not an exception; everybody does."

Duncan, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., liked Duke's mix of academic and women's golf excellence. She quickly rattles off program alums now on the LPGA Tour, but she's also thinking about what a degree from Duke would mean.

"Duke's got such a great name when it comes to women's golf," Duncan said. "Coach Brooks knows a little bit about what he's doing."

That's an understatement. Brooks has more tournament wins (110) than any Division I women's coach. He has sent Brittany Lang, Anna Grzebien, Amanda Blumenherst and others to pro ranks. He's taken his last 13 teams to the NCAAs, but that's not the streak he's thinking about this week.

"We haven't won the last two. Right now, it's two in a row of not winning," he said. "I pay attention to what we've done lately."