VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Look out, y’all.
Reigning NCAA Champion Annie Park came into the 111th North & South Women’s Amateur off one of the best debut seasons in the history of collegiate golf, so it wasn’t surprising she continued her incredible play, cruising to a 5-under 67 to take two-shot lead following the first round of the historic amateur tournament on Tuesday.
But, of course, that was to be expected. After all, Park won four times in her freshman season while also leading Southern Cal to the team NCAA Championship.
So, no, the 67 and the lead were not surprising in the least.
The surprises came when Park commented on her round.
“Honestly, I don’t really know how I did it,” Park said after dicing up the 6,422-yard, par-72 Pinehurst No. 4 with an eagle, four birdies and a bogey. “I struggled.”
That’s hard to believe – until you look at all Park has accomplished in golf over the last few months.
The 18-year-old from Levittown, N.Y., had as dominant of a debut as possible in collegiate golf as a freshman, leading top-ranked USC to its third NCAA team title while winning four individual events en route to 2013 WGCA and Pac-12 Player and Freshman of the Year honors.
NCAA Champion Annie Park, shown in this photo, leads the 111th North & South Women’s Amateur in Pinehurst.Park, whose North & South title quest comes a year after 2011 NCAA Champion Austin Ernst prevailed at Pinehurst, capped her incredible freshman season by winning the 2013 NCAA Women’s Golf individual title by six strokes with a 10-under 278 (70-67-70-71). That win, her fourth of the season, tied a USC season record and followed titles at the NCAA West Regional and the Pac-12 Championships, making her just the second NCAA woman to sweep conference, regional and NCAA titles in the same season.
Park’s stroke average of 71.36 broke USC’s season record (71.55) and her four wins tied the school record shared by Trojan All-Americans Mikaela Parmlid and Irene Cho. An early enrollee who joined the Trojans in January, Park posted seven Top 8 finishes and six in the Top 3 in nine events. Most recently, Park was also the co-medalist at the U.S. Women’s Public Links.
That inspired play continued at Pinehurst, where she chipped in for eagle on the 487-yard, par-5 second hole before making three birdies over a stretch of four holes to start her back nine.
But, apparently, it was far from her lofty standard.
“I was struggling with a few shots today,” Park said. “I wasn’t doing much right. I struggled with putting. I couldn’t make anything.”
That’s good for the rest of the field, which boasts as elite a collection of players as amateur golf will see this summer. Among those is another star freshman from the Pac-12, Stanford’s Mariah Stackhouse, whose 3-under 69 came by way of an unblemished round with three birdies and 15 pars.
“It was really solid,” said Stackhouse, who won twice this season and set a new women’s college record when she fired a 61 in February. “I have a history of playing OK the first round and then coming back and doing well in the second round. I didn’t want to be in that position this time. I wanted to be where I needed to be right off the jump. It takes a lot of pressure off for (Wednesday).”
She’s right there, just two shots back of Park, whom she battled throughout the Pac-12 season. Stackhouse, a native of Charlotte, knew someone – likely Park – would put up a low round on Tuesday.
“You had to attack it knowing that everybody in this field can do well and has done well. That’s why they’re here,” Stackhouse, 19, said. “It’s definitely great competition.”
Columbia’s Michelle Piyapattra also carded a 3-under 69 to share second. Piyapattra finished in a tie for 7th after stroke play in 2012 North & South but was ousted in the Round of 16 in match play.
“I just want to get back into match play and just see how it goes,” she said. “Last time, No. 2 was a blur.”
After three rounds of stroke play on No. 4, the championship will shift to Donald Ross’ famed Pinehurst No. 2, the host of the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in back-to-back weeks in 2014. The top 16 players from stroke play will advance to No. 2.
Mississippi’s State Ally McDonald was tied for fourth with British Columbia’s Christine Wong after a 2-under 70, while Hayley Bettencourt , Ashlan Ramsey and Rinko Mitsunaga were another shot back at 1 under.
“It definitely could’ve been a lot better,” MCDonald said. “I left a few birdie opportunities out there. Overall, I was pretty satisfied. When you hit as well as that, you’re always going to leave a few out there.”
Among other notables in the field, reigning U.S. Public Links Champion Lauren Diaz-Yi was 1 over while 17-year-old junior phenom Yueer “Cindy” Feng stood at even.
Two-time North & South runner-up Doris Chen, a teammate at Southern Cal with Park, withdrew from the championship citing a sore wrist. Chen was coming off a runner-up finish at the U.S. Public Links, falling to Diaz-Yi in the championship match.
Southern Pines native Gabrielle Weiss had a hole-in-one on the 132-yard 6th hole on No. 4, helping her to a 4-over 76.
Two years after the men’s North and South Amateur Championship began in 1900, the women’s championship was born and now celebrates its 111th year. It has become one of the most sought after women’s amateur titles and routinely displays the talents of the top amateurs in the game. Seven of the past 10 North & South champions are members of the LPGA Tour.
North & South champions are among the legends of the game: Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Peggy Kirk, Hollis Stacey, Donna Andrews, Brandie Burton, Brittany Lang, Morgan Pressel and Yani Tseng.
“If you know golf, you know Pinehurst,” Stackhouse said.