By Stan Cole
PINEHURST, N.C. – Finishing atop the leaderboard at the North & South Women’s Amateur is becoming a habit for Kristen Gillman.
After 36 holes of stroke play, the defending champion sat at 2-over-par, good enough to earn a different Putter Boy trophy and the top seed for the match play portion of the 115th edition of the event at Pinehurst No. 2.
Gillman, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, a University of Alabama standout and resident of Austin, Texas, sat two strokes off the lead after Monday’s opening round on the 6,332-yard layout. But on Tuesday, she was the lone player in the 89-golfer field to shoot even-par 71 and finished two shots better than Jaclyn Lee and Yujeong Son.
Sitting 3 over through her first eight holes, Gillman made three birdies – on the par-4 11th and 13th and the par-5 16th – over her last eight. Her steady play – a tournament-best 26 pars with nothing worse than bogey – put Gillman atop the 32-golfer match play field.
“Actually I didn’t hit it that good. I was just making putts and that kind of saved me today,” said Gillman, who is the 22nd-ranked women’s amateur in the world. “It’s definitely nice being up there on the leaderboard, but starting match play is just kind of like a whole new tournament.”
Lee followed Monday’s 3-over 74 with a plus-one 72 Tuesday and played the final nine holes at even par. She made 24 pars over 36 holes with four birdies and only eight bogeys to finish at 4 over through two days of high humidity and temperatures in the 90s.
“I was dropping some putts today,” said Lee, a resident of Calgary, Alberta, who competes at Ohio State. “My ball striking was not as good as yesterday, it was kind of average. But making sure you hit it in the right places; that’s most important.”
Son (71-75—146) shared the opening round lead, but a double-bogey on the 18th Tuesday dropped her into a tie for second place. Bethany Wu (74-74—148), Jackie Chulya (73-75—148) and last week’s North & South Girls Junior champ Aneka Seumanutafa (72-76—78) finished stroke play in a tie for fourth.
The oldest competitor in the field, 55-year-old Martha Leach of Hebron, Kentucky, also qualified for match play after finishing in a tie for 10th at 8-over 150 (76-74). Competing in her 28th North & South event, the Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame member was even through her first five holes before she aced the par-3 6th.
“It was my first competitive hole-in-one, and I’ve been competing for 42 years,” said Leach. “That’s a long time, and it was on a booger of a hole. I hit a 4-hybrid in and was 178 to the hole. I hit a good shot, wanted to land it about 170, and I just saw it roll, and I hoped it’s still on the green – you just don’t know till you get up there.”
A member of the host family of Leach’s playing partner Heather Ciskowski indicated that the ball was in the cup, confirming Leach’s third career ace, but first in tournament play.
“I just like coming to the Village of Pinehurst,” said Leach. “It’s just the atmosphere. People here love golf, people want to play golf, and people want to play No. 2. It’s a truly unbelievable bonus to make it into match play. I’m not playing a whole lot of golf because I’m in real estate and work obligations I have.”
According to Gillman, match play strategy on the historic Donald Ross design is similar to stroke play.
“It doesn’t really matter what seed you are, you just have to beat the person you’re playing against,” said the defending champ. “You have to hit a lot of fairways and greens. These aren’t easy holes and par is good on most.”
Sixteen matches are set for Wednesday morning, followed by the afternoon round of 16. Quarterfinal and semifinal matches will be played Thursday with the final scheduled for Friday.
The Women’s North & South Amateur is the longest consecutively running amateur championship in the United States. North & South champions are among the legends of the game: Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Peggy Kirk Bell, Hollis Stacey as well as Brandie Burton, Brittany Lang, Morgan Pressel and Yani Tseng.
As much as the North & South is a championship with a great past, it also continues to foster a great legacy. Ten of the last 13 Amateur champions have joined the LPGA Tour, four of whom have won major championships – Pressel, Tseng and Lang, who won the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open. 2011 Women’s North & South Champion Danielle Kang won her first major championship recently at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
The Women’s North & South has drawn the top amateur women from around the country and is the longest consecutively running women’s amateur championship in the country. Its first championship was played in 1903.