BY ALEX PODLOGAR
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Just 19 years old and on her first trip to Pinehurst, Alison Lee couldn’t help herself.
After finishing her practice round at Pinehurst No. 8 to prepare for the 112th Women’s North & South Amateur, Lee made her way over to the Pinehurst Resort Clubhouse, meandering on her way with friends to the back of the 18th green of famed Pinehurst No. 2.
She stood at the Payne Stewart statue, smiled and took the photo.
“I’m part of the younger generation,” Lee said, laughing. “It was really cool to see Payne Stewart’s statue. This place is full of history.”
Lee began her attempt to write more history at Pinehurst on Tuesday, firing a sparkling 2-under 69 to lead the Women’s North & South Amateur after the first round of stroke play to lead by one shot over fellow Pac-12 golfer, Stanford’s Lauren Kim.
Lee, ranked as the top player in college golf by Golfweek and the 2014 Pac-12 Champion as a freshman at UCLA, made just one bogey while carding three birdies on a difficult No. 8 that measured just under 6,400 yards and played to an average of 77.7.
“I just played really consistently,” said Lee, who reached the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur. “I didn’t make too many mistakes, didn’t miss too many greens…and when I did, I was able to get up and down. I gave myself chances on every hole to make birdie.”
Lee is one of the elite players in a field that is consistently one of the best in amateur golf. Eight of the last 11 North & South champions have earned their LPGA Tour cards.
That doesn’t include defending champion Ally McDonald. At least not yet.
McDonald returned to Pinehurst a month after appearing in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open with a sturdy 1-over 72 while playing in the day’s marquee group with Lee, her Curtis Cup teammate, and Arkansas star Gaby Lopez, who shot even-par 71. The Mississippi State star was as low as 1 under through 14 holes, but bogeyed two of the last four to finish three shots back of Lee.
“I really didn’t play that well today,” said McDonald, now ranked as the No. 3 amateur in the world after a brilliant collegiate and amateur season. “I had to get up and down several times, which was really good, but I was struggling to get looks at birdies.”
With two more rounds of stroke play to decide the 16 seeds for match play, McDonald, who is seeking to become the first back-to-back North & South champion since Beth Bauer in 1998-99, was happy to be near the top of the leaderboard.
“I know from last year that all that matters is getting into the top 16,” she said.
Play was suspended for 65 minutes in the middle of the afternoon wave, but the break seemed to jumpstart Kim’s round. She returned to the course to card three birdies in her last five holes.
“It was a bit of a struggle after the rain – carrying my own bag, an umbrella, rain gear,” laughed Kim, the only other player under par. “But I played really solid.”
Lori Beth Adams, playing in her fifth North & South event, held the lead by herself for much of the morning round, making birdies at 10 and 11, where she chipped in, to move to 2 under. But as the wind picked up in the early afternoon, Adams was happy to get into the clubhouse at even-par 71 with four others after bogeys on 16 and 17.
“Coming in it was just so tough,” said Adams, who advanced to the North & South match play quarterfinals in 2012 before just missing the match play cut last year. “The wind was picking up and you just wanted to get on the green and two-putt and move on.”
While Lee is learning Pinehurst history on the fly, Adams, a North Carolina native, is well-versed in what a North & South win would mean.
“All the players who have played in this tournament, it would mean so much to have my name on the wall and on the trophy,” Adams said. “It’s a pretty amazing history.”
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.
North & South champions are among the legends of the game: Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Peggy Kirk Bell, Hollis Stacey, Brandie Burton, Brittany Lang, Morgan Pressel and Yani Tseng.