One month after winning the NCAA women’s golf individual championship, rising Duke sophomore Virginia Elena Carta could still feel the emotions behind every shot, even as she sat at a desk behind her laptop. She pushed the final paper she had to write for her summer-term class out of her mind. Instead, she was back in Oregon at the Eugene Country Club, revisiting the final tee shot of her record-setting performance.
With one hole to play, Carta was up by eight strokes.
“So, I knew that it was hard not to win at that point,” the native of Italy said. “But at the same time, like the other days, going into the last hole of the round, I was feeling under pressure and really, really nervous. I went on the tee box smiling, and I hit the shot. And as soon as the club released from the ball, I smiled because I knew it was going straight.
“The drive, because I kind of realized I was winning, was probably the best shot of my life.”
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That drive helped cap a 3-under 69 for the final round and a 16-under total 272 for 72 holes, an NCAA record. Her margin of victory (eight strokes) set an NCAA record as well.
Perhaps even more remarkable: The NCAA championship was Carta’s first tournament win of the season.
“She was making a lot of putts,” coach Dan Brooks said. “The thing about it is that she has a really good long game and had not traditionally been a great putter up to that championship.
“The thing that I think tipped her over and let her win this by such a landslide was that her putting turned good going into this tournament.”
The improved putting results weren’t the result of any physical tweaks. Like nearly all of Carta’s improvements this year, it came thanks to tweaks on the mental side of the game. Brooks joked that working with her this year was like taking a yoga class, with a heavy focus on deep breaths to properly channel her natural Italian exuberance and passion.
“The term we used with her swing was we just need to tame things, not change things,” Brooks said. “She needed to harness everything.”
Brooks was so taken with Carta’s ability when he first saw her that he only needed to see one hole to know she was at the top of Duke’s recruiting list.
Brooks was near Orlando, Fla., at Reunion Resort’s Watson Course in 2013 when he saw the young Italian. After walking the par-5 17th hole with one of the Italian federation coaches and watching Carta drive, bomb her second shot and execute a pitch up to the green, Brooks knew he had a new top target.
“When we got to that 17th green, she was on top of my list for that class,” Brooks said. “The way she carried herself. She walked with a lot of purpose. She had a lot of enthusiasm and passion. Then I watched her swing. I happen to love good technique, good golf swing technique. I saw her swing with a very powerful swing. And then a fist pump that she gave – it was just a lot of really positive stuff. Everything you’re looking for in a golfer in that one hole.”
We don’t have an Italian dressing in Italy. It’s not Italian. The Italian dressing is oil and salt, and that’s it.
Duke golf champion Virginia Elena Carta
When 16-year-old Carta committed in the summer of 2013, she was the earliest commitment Brooks had ever taken for a class. And it was after that that he went to Europe to see her play a few more holes.
“Here was just a lot of raw talent and a beautiful golf swing that just needed to learn to be in control of her emotions and to be patient,” Brooks said.
Carta wanted to come to the United States so she could study and play golf, and Duke gave her the best combination of both, she said. The fact that Duke’s entire seven-person team is international helped make Durham a home away from home – with one notable exception.
“I miss real Italian food,” Carta said.
Her critiques: Pasta is “way overcooked” in the U.S. and topped with inferior sauces, and pizza crust is too thick and oily here. And then there’s salad dressing.
“I usually put just oil and salt on, and when I do that, everyone looks at me in a weird way,” she said. “And they’re asking me, why don’t I put the Italian dressing on, and I’m like because we don’t have an Italian dressing in Italy. It’s not Italian. The Italian dressing is oil and salt, and that’s it.”
Carta laughs, which is something she does often. She had spent the past two weeks getting rejuvenated by teaching 13- to 15-year-olds at Duke’s golf camps and clinics, and now she’s preparing for the LPGA Marathon Classic in Ohio next week. Then it’s off to Europe for a tournament, four days at home, back to the U.S. for the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green Golf Club, Springfield, Pa., 18 days at home and then time to report for the fall semester.
But first: that final paper.
Carta had been telling one of her camp charges about the looming difficulty when she stopped her and reminded the teacher of her lesson.
“‘I remember you teaching us last week that we need to breathe and be relaxed on the course,’” Carta said, recalling the conversation. “‘So you better breathe, and you’re going to be fine.’”