One of Duke’s best golfers ever, Alex Smalley has the Blue Devils back in NCAAs

Alex Smalley on NCAAs, turning pro

Duke golfer Alex Smalley is close to completing one of the top senior seasons and careers in Blue Devils history. But before he turns professional in September, he has Duke in this week's NCAA championships.
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Duke golfer Alex Smalley is close to completing one of the top senior seasons and careers in Blue Devils history. But before he turns professional in September, he has Duke in this week's NCAA championships.

Alex Smalley’s childhood dream of becoming a professional golfer is but four months away.

That doesn’t mean the former Wake Forest High School golfing standout is in a rush to get there.

Smalley and his Duke team are participating in the NCAA championships for a third consecutive season starting Friday. He wants to complete his senior season -- he’s already been named all-ACC for the third year in a row -- on the highest of notes.

“We aren’t done yet,” Duke coach Jamie Green said. “Alex isn’t done yet.”

Smalley is putting the finishing touches on a standout career and one of the top seasons in Duke program history.

He enters the NCAA finals with a team-leading 69.65 stroke average. He’s close to becoming the first Duke player to ever post a season stroke average below 70. He’s been par or better in 24 of his 31 rounds this season, posting 16 rounds in the 60s.

“He just hasn’t had a bad week when you look at scoring,” Green said. “That’s usually the mark of a first-team all-American. Sometimes the guys on that committee like to see a lot of wins. But a very consistent low scorer no matter the track. It didn’t matter whether even par was a good score one day or he had to shoot 5-under to make some noise, he found a way to be competitive. That’s a good thing for our players to recognize.”

Smalley shot 1-under par last week at the Athens (Ga.) Regional, tying for seventh individually with teammate Chandler Eaton. They helped the Blue Devils finish second as a team at the regional, trailing only host Georgia.

Eaton, a junior who was also named all-ACC, has learned plenty from his older teammate while also playing stroke for stroke with him at times this season.

“Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from him is his confidence in himself,” Eaton said. “His ability to zone everything out whether it’s people telling him he needs to do something with his swing or how he should play a certain way. He owns himself. I think that’s something that I’ve grown in to as I’ve been around him. I’ve tried to grow into myself.”

The NCAA championships begin Friday at The Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark. Smalley enters it having turned in solid results at the regional even though he said, “I didn’t feel like I had my A game and even my B plus game.”

Green said that feeling isn’t a sign that Smalley’s confidence is lacking. On the contrary, Smalley is known for pressing forward with a clear head no matter his recent results.

“He can make a lot of things happen,” Green said. “I’ve seen him snap hook it on the range and it doesn’t faze him. He’ll hook it a couple of times then he’ll got out and shoot 65. He’s just that kind of player.”

An all-state performer at Wake Forest High who won the N.C. Junior Boys championship in 2014, Smalley has a career stroke average of 71.19 for his four seasons at Duke. He’s on pace to break the school’s career record of 72.14, set by current PGA Tour member Ryan Blaum from 2002-06.

Smalley said he’s learned plenty while compiling all those successful rounds during his Blue Devils’ career.

“I think I’m more mature,” Smalley said. “You come in as a freshman thinking you can pull off any shot at any time. It doesn’t quite work out that way. So I think just making the right decisions in the right moments. Like if you hit it off line or you’re in a bad spot, it can be easy to try and hit the heroic shot. But I’ve learned over the four years that that’s not the percentage play.”

After the NCAA championships are done, Smalley has a few more stops on his amateur career. He’ll participate next month in the Palmer Cup, which pits top U.S. and international amateurs against each other in Ryder Cup-style competition.

Smalley also hopes to make the Walker Cup team for its September competition. Contested biennially, the Walker Cup includes leading amateur golfers from Great Britain and Ireland and the U.S.

After that, Smalley plans to begins his pro career.

But he wants to complete his Duke career in style first.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.