VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – It could be something as simple as walking to the car.
You wouldn’t notice it right away. But walk with Mississippi State’s Ally McDonald to the car enough, and soon you will realize something.
She always gets to it first.
“I’m very competitive,” says McDonald, who finished 10th in the NCAA Championship this year. “Ask girls on my team, ask anyone who knows me, I am super competitive. I always, always want to win, no matter what it is.”
Now she’s in position to win the 111th North & South Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst Resort. And perhaps as an added bonus for McDonald, now the tournament shifts not only to famed Pinehurst No. 2, host of the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, it goes from stroke play to match play.
“I’ve always enjoyed match play,” McDonald said. “It’s just the different competitiveness of it. In stroke play, you’re really just playing against the golf course. Now you’re going to be battling against the other person. Match play’s always been good for me because I can be more aggressive.”
McDonald bogeyed 18 in the final round of stroke play on Thursday at Pinehurst No. 4 to finish a shot out of a three-way medalist playoff that included Ashlan Ramsey, who’s ranked by Golfweek as the No. 2 junior in the world, Hayley Bettencourt and Stanford star Mariah Stackhouse. Winning the playoff was Stackhouse, who made birdie on the third playoff hole, the par-5 2nd.
But while Stackhouse claimed a Putter Boy trophy as medalist, McDonald might be considered a strong favorite for the championship now that it will be decided by head-to-head meetings. McDonald was a semifinalist at the 2012 U.S. Junior and twice won the Mississippi Women’s Amateur, which also features match play.
“It definitely changes my mindset,” McDonald said. “Now I’m playing more to the strengths and weakness of my opponent. It all depends on how aggressive you can be and where position she is in.”
Few players in the North & South field have been as consistent as McDonald, who shook off a double bogey Thursday to earn the No. 5 seed in match play, which begins on No. 2 with Round of 16 and quarterfinal matches Friday.
Stackhouse, though, is a rising star. She won twice this college season and posted eight of the nine lowest rounds for Stanford this year despite being a freshman. Stackhouse finished Thursday with a flourish, making birdie on three of her last six holes to shoot 70 and earn a trip to the playoff.
She, too, is excited for match play, but understands that every match looms as potentially her last, even as the tournament’s top seed.
“There’s only 16 players, so No. 16 will have just as good a chance as No. 1 because it’s such a slim margin between players,” said Stackhouse, who set a new women’s college record when she shot 61 earlier this season. “Each match you have is going to be against stiff competition. You just have to go in feeling like you’re the 16 seed because in all actuality, everybody is pretty close.”
Bettencourt, 18, had six birdies on her way to one of the day’s lowest rounds, a 4-under 68, taking the clubhouse lead after finishing her round only moments before lightning forced a 3-hour delay. She has quickly risen through the ranks in Australian amateur golf, and entered the North & South because of Pinehurst’s storied reputation. It was enough to get Bettencourt to leave her native land for the first time.
“I’ve not been out of Australia before, so I thought I’d start here,” Bettencourt said. “I heard (the North & South) was at Pinehurst and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got to go there!’ I had to see what people were all talking about and sure enough, it’s been amazing so far.
“I keep saying, ‘I’m at Pinehurst! I’m going to play No. 2! This is crazy!’ I love it. I’m enjoying every moment.”
Ramsey, 17, has to be considered a heavy favorite as well. She has won her last three tournaments, including the Women’s Eastern Amateur, which is played on the Kingsmill River Course in Williamsburg, Va., site of one of the season’s top annual LPGA Tour events.
Annie Park, who won the 2013 NCAA Championship and led after each of the first two rounds in Pinehurst, struggled to a 2-over 74 for the fourth seed in match play.
Emma Lavy fired the day’s best round, a 5-under 67, to edge her way into a playoff for the final seed. Four players – Lavy, Demi Runas, Sierra Sims and Janie Jackson – made up the playoff, with Lavy and Runas surviving to advance to match play.
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.