GREENSBORO, GEORGIA | She’s never been here before. Not just the Great Waters Course at Reynolds Lake Oconee, which very few LPGA Tour players had seen prior to the Drive On Championship, but where she finds herself relative to the field after two rounds.
Ally McDonald has never taken a lead into an LPGA Tour weekend. She’s been atop the board after day one, as she was yesterday, most recently at the 2019 ANA Inspiration. And she’s been close other times, including this past February at the ISPS Handa Vic Open, where she trailed Madelene Sagstrom by a shot after Friday. But sitting alone with a “1” by her name on Saturday afternoon is new for the 27-year-old.
“I’m obviously happy with the way I’ve played, the way I’ve struck the ball, and I’m really excited for another opportunity,” McDonald said after making six birdies and two bogeys on Friday to be the only person in the field to reach double-digits under par at minus 10. “I love to contend. I can’t wait to bring my best (the next two days).”
Learning to win at the highest level is an individual journey. For McDonald, that road has been longer and sometimes bumpier than she’d hoped when she arrived on Tour as one of the most accomplished amateurs in the world.
“She won at every level,” said McDonald-family friend Jim Gallagher, Jr., who is at Reynolds for the Golf Channel. “Junior golf, college golf, amateur golf, winning seemed to come easy for her.”
Watching McDonald at the Curtis Cup in St. Louis, for example, you couldn’t help but think she would capture multiple wins and a major or two. She drives it long, high and straight and the ball pops off her irons and always seem the fly exactly the right distance. Sure, she gets the occasional big bounce or misjudges the spin out of the rough – every great player in history has that – but nothing is ever clanky.
“If she had a weakness, it was her short game, particularly her putting,” Gallagher said. “But she’s worked so hard on that and it’s really good now. (Winning) out here has taken longer than she thought. But she’s on the path. She’s going to get there.”
It’s far too soon to know if this will be that week. But McDonald’s mind is certainly in the right place.
“If anything, I have a tendency to get a little ahead of myself,” she said Friday afternoon. “So, between now and the time I tee off tomorrow I’ll keep telling myself that it’s just one shot at a time. I’m just going to try to execute my game plan. I’ve been hitting it really well. It’s a calming thing to know that I can trust my golf swing. I might not have been in this position as often as those around me. But I know that the more I put myself here the more comfortable I’m going to get. Yeah, I’m really excited and hope to continue to play well.
“There are a lot of holes here that require good precision. I’ve gotten good at knowing where I want shots to pitch because I’ve gotten a good feel for how far shots are going to roll out. But it’s just trusting my routine and my ball-striking and believing that the better I strike it, the more opportunities that I have.
“I’ve also got some good feels on the greens right now. I can trust that I don’t have to hit it to five feet to make birdie. That’s where the patience comes in to say, ‘you know what, if this hole location is giving me 15 feet or 30 feet, that’s what I’ll take.’”
That’s the self-talk of a winner, a calm confidence delivered with an easy smile.
“The Solheim Cup added a lot of confidence to her, knowing that she could do it on that big a stage,” Gallagher said. “I know being in the Ryder Cup gave me a boost and the Solheim did the same for her.”
“Solheim Cup was a huge confidence booster,” McDonald said. “To have Juli (Inkster) show the confidence in me to put me in that first-alternate spot and then to step in and get the chance to compete in that pressure situation with that many people around, it was such an incredible feeling. It’s a little different than being out here by myself. I mean, representing the United States, you have the whole country watching, you’re like, ‘Okay, I have to bring my best here.’”
This week she has her parents with her at Reynolds, which is an added bonus. McDonald turns 28 on Sunday and her parents haven’t seen her play on her birthday since she joined the LPGA Tour and started going to Asia.
“Having her parents here is definitely a help,” Gallagher said. “And being married now and settled with Charlie, who is a great guy, that’s a big deal. My wife always says, ‘For guys to be happy, they have to play well. For women to play well, they have to be happy.’ When players are happy at home, they’re going to play well.”
“No matter who is watching, I have to be right there in the moment, in the present at that particular time,” McDonald said. “I think in the past couple of years, I might have overemphasized winning and let that be a bit of a barrier and a distraction for me. Obviously, these next 36 holes, I’m going to do my best to put myself in the best position to have that (winning) putt on Sunday. But having my mom and dad here and being so close to home – Georgia is about as close to home as we get for me – it would be really special.
“Obviously, the more you put yourself in this position, the more comfortable you’re going to get. I definitely don’t think you get on the first tee and say, ‘Oh, I have the lead, I have to put the pedal down.’ Mentally, I have the right approach, which is to not let my mind wander into the future.“Maybe I haven’t been the best at this in the past, but every time, every day, every shot, I’m going to get a little bit better.”