As the next alternate on the allotment list to gain entry into the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club, Ally McDonald had booked a flight to Philadelphia in case of a last-minute withdrawal. The 22-year-old from Fulton, Miss., decided it was worth the gamble, even if the odds of getting into the championship weren’t in her favor.
On Tuesday night around 8, McDonald’s phone rang with good news – for her, at least. Yoonkyung Heo, an exempt player from the Republic of Korea, had withdrawn due to a knee injury, giving McDonald a spot in the field.
“When I called a couple of weeks ago to see where I was on the [allotment] list, they said I was sixth,” said McDonald, the first alternate from the May 18 Atlanta sectional at Druid Hills. “I had a little bit of positivity about it and then it kept getting later and later. When I got a call Monday to say it was a possibility, I was very excited.”
McDonald, who graduated from Mississippi State in May, is fresh off a victory in her professional debut last week in the Michigan PGA Women’s Open, a 54-hole event. She posted 5-under 211 to edge former Southeastern Conference rival Kendall Martindale (Vanderbilt) by two strokes at the Crystal Springs Resort’s Mountain Ridge Course.
“It’s a little different mindset [playing as a professional],” said McDonald, a member of the victorious 2014 USA Curtis Cup Team. “I’m still playing the same game and I am doing it because I love to play. You can’t really get wrapped up … in the money. As soon as it becomes a money game and a job, that’s when it goes downhill.”
She arrived at Lancaster on Wednesday afternoon without much sleep. Leaving the house at 3 a.m. for a 5:45 a.m. flight from Memphis, McDonald was dropped off at the airport by her parents before they continued the 14-hour-plus journey to Lancaster. Ally’s 18-year-old brother, Andrew, an incoming freshman at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, will serve as her caddie.
McDonald, who missed the cut in her first U.S. Women’s Open appearance last year at Pinehurst No. 2, was hoping to at least walk Lancaster Country Club on Wednesday to get a feel for the classic William Flynn design.
“I’m anxious to get out and look around,” she said. “I hope to play today.”
Women’s Open Spot Doesn’t Overwhelm Dylan Kim
At just 18 years old with one semester of college golf under her belt, it would be easy to assume that Dylan Kim feels a little out of her element in her first U.S. Women’s Open. But it quickly becomes apparent that such an assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’ve been fortunate. I played a couple of big events that I think have prepared me very well for this,” Kim said following a session on the practice range. “I played in the NCAA Championship, there were a lot of spectators there. I played in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, and the [Girls’ Junior] last year, too. Everything is just a little bigger, a little grander. It’s cool to see faces that I’ve seen on TV around here, but I feel comfortable enough.”
Indeed, making an early jump to the next level of competition is nothing new for Kim. The Plano, Texas, resident was just a few months removed from a run to the Round of 16 in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur when her future college coach, Jay Goble, asked if she wanted to enroll at Baylor University in January 2015, instead of waiting until the fall of that year.
The opportunity offered a multitude of benefits: The program was coming off a strong fall season, and the addition of Kim would strengthen their postseason hopes. Having been home-schooled, Kim had never played on a team, and the early start would allow her to acclimate to the experience. Also, competing during the spring semester would give her the opportunity to be teammates with senior Hayley Davis, a two-time All-America honoree. Goble impressed upon Kim the positives of teaming up with and learning from Davis on her long-term prospects, and she was sold.
Kim did not disappoint, playing in all nine events the Bears competed in during the spring, and peaking at the end, helping Baylor to the Big 12 Conference title and finishing fourth individually in the NCAA Championship. That propeled the squad to the match-play portion of the championship, where Kim would go 2-0-1 in the Bears’ runner-up effort. Just months into her collegiate career, Kim would join Davis as an All-America honoree.
“Being able to practice with Hayley and all of my teammates was great. They push me, we push each other,” said Kim, who also qualified for match play in the 2014 U.S. Girls’ Junior. “Having the opportunity to play for the national championship was huge.”
When talking about expectations for her Women’s Open debut, making the cut is at the top of Kim’s list, but it would be hard to discount more lofty ambitions.
“It feels like it’s been gradual, which is nice, since I don’t feel too much out of my element,” said Kim.
Last Exemption Year For Birdie Kim
In some ways, her heroic bunker shot to win the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open seems like yesterday. In other ways, that miracle blast seems like a different lifetime for the Republic of Korea’s Birdie Kim, who is playing this week in the final year of her 10-year Women’s Open exemption.
That shot was a life-changer for Kim, who had previously labored on the Futures Golf Tour (now the Symetra Tour). She earned 2004 LPGA Tour membership as a top money winner on the 2003 Futures Tour, then claimed the biggest prize in women’s golf by holing out from the front bunker for birdie to win the 2005 championship on the final hole at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver.
Women’s Open winners earn automatic entry for 10 years. When the decade elapses, even past champions must qualify, unless they meet other criteria, such as world rankings or money lists.
“It doesn’t seem like 10 years,” said Kim, 33, who is once again playing on the Symetra Tour in an effort to regain full LPGA membership. “I can’t believe it’s my last year at the Open. I’ll remember that shot forever.”
Kim’s career came to a painful crossroads when she was seriously injured in a car accident in August 2010. She had just returned home to Korea following the Women’s British Open and was sitting in the back seat of a car when the vehicle was hit broadside.
Kim sustained serious facial injuries in the crash. The bones in the left side of her face were crushed and doctors wondered if she would lose her left eye. Surgery saved her eye and Kim’s left cheek was reconstructed with titanium. She missed the entire 2011 season as she recovered in Korea.
“My neck still bothers me when I play too much golf or I get too tired or my posture is bad,” said Kim. “My vision and balance changed after the accident.”
Last year, Kim’s father died, so she returned home to Korea to spend time with her family.
And three months ago, while playing on the Symetra Tour, she was rushed to a hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Once again, she finds herself making slow progress.
“I just want to play tournaments again,” said Kim, who has missed five cuts in seven events this year on the Symetra Tour, with a season-best tie for 28th. “I want that winning feeling again.”
Kim hopes to play professional golf for at least five more years, adding that she “never looks too far forward because things change, always.”
But for Kim, this week is about the Women’s Open and what winning that championship has given her the last 10 years.
“People still think I’m a really good bunker player,” she said with a laugh. “It makes me happy that people remember me.”
A Challenging Finish
No. 18 at Lancaster Country Club will likely be one of the toughest finishing holes players face all year. The par 4 with an uphill approach shot measures 437 yards, and the green’s severe design will make for a challenging finish to the round.
The hole starts with a tee shot to a downhill landing area, and the long, uphill approach is to a green that is severely sloped from back to front with three pronounced slopes.
In an informal poll of players, from those who bomb it to those less prodigious off the tee, most agree that No. 18 could prove to be the beast of the week.
“I thought it was a par 5 when I looked at it,” said Lizette Salas, ranked No. 130 in average driving distance at 239 yards. “I hit a 3-wood into the green on Tuesday and it rolled all the way back off the green, and that was from the shorter [teeing ground].”
Salas said she and her caddie spent a lot of time chipping around the green.
“Getting up and down is going to be important on that hole,” Salas said.
Azahara Munoz of Spain, a longer hitter than Salas, said the hole will be a test, even for those who benefit from their distance off the tee.
“It’s just really long,” said Munoz, who ranks 49th in average driving distance on Tour at 253 yards. “If I can’t reach it, more than half of the people in the field are not going to sniff hitting this green in regulation.”
“It’s tough,” added two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Karrie Webb of Australia, who averages nearly 250 yards off the tee. “I hit a 5-wood into 18 using the back tee and a 4-iron from the ‘up tee.’ The big deal is this is a pretty severe green.”
Meaghan Francella, a two-time LPGA Tour winner who is caddieing for second-year LPGA pro Marina Alex, shook her head.
“You need to hit the approach shot at least 15 yards on the green or it’s not staying, and there are only a couple of flat spots on the green,” she said.
Even a bomber like Brittany Lincicome, who often hits 3-wood off the tee to keep her shots in the fairway, twice used a hybrid club to reach the green in practice rounds. Lincicome said she hits her hybrid 220 yards.
“It’s going to be about who keeps it in the fairway,” said Lincicome, ranked second in LPGA driving average at 273 yards. “If I’m hitting hybrid into that green, gosh, what is Mo Martin hitting?”
One of the Tour’s shortest hitters, Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open last year when she reached the par-5 finishing hole in two and rolled in an eagle putt. Martin said that’s not going to happen this week.
“It’s a 440-yard par-4 into the wind, up a hill with a severe green that plays more like 474 yards,” said Martin, ranked No. 143 in driving with an average of 234 yards. “I can’t reach the green from the front tee and I don’t think they can put it far enough forward for me.”
One thing all agree on is this: par will be a very good score on a very challenging finishing hole.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com. Scott Lipsky and Lisa D. Mickey contributed.