Finding the town of Fulton, Miss., on a map takes a strong magnifying glass or a GPS unit. Located in the northeast corner of the state, the rural town 20 miles east of Tupelo along U.S. Route 78 has approximately 4,500 residents, a secondary school named Itawamba Agriculture High School, and is probably best known as the hometown of Elvis Presley’s father, Vernon.
The only golf course, nine-hole Fulton Country Club, has no driving range and a tiny practice putting green. During the summer, it’s common to see players wearing gym shorts, T-shirts or blue jeans.
“It’s very casual,” said Ally McDonald, a Mississippi State University junior who will represent the USA in the 2014 Curtis Cup Match at St. Louis Country Club June 6-8. “Everybody knows everybody.”
This is where McDonald grew up. It’s where she was transformed from a virtual unknown to a first-team All-American who is currently No. 15 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™. Perhaps it’s apropos that the 21-year-old plays for the Bulldogs (Mississippi State’s mascot), because of the eight USA Curtis Cup competitors, she’s probably the biggest underdog.
McDonald isn’t a USGA champion (Emma Talley and Kyung Kim) or an NCAA champion (Annie Park). She hasn’t competed in a Women’s World Amateur (Erynne Lee) or been a USGA runner-up (Ashlan Ramsey and Alison Lee). Nor has she set a nine- or 18-hole NCAA scoring record (Mariah Stackhouse).
“I kind of identify with her because I was a late starter … and just kept plugging away,” said Ellen Port, the USA Curtis Cup captain, who didn’t start playing until after college but now owns six USGA championships. “There are no excuses coming out of her. She never complains. She just gets it done. You see the competitor in her.”
That fiery spirit likely was born on the basketball court. Hoops was McDonald’s first love until she realized midway through high school that golf was more likely to pave the way to a college scholarship. McDonald was introduced to golf after her family moved from Tupelo to Fulton when she was 4 to be closer to relatives. McDonald’s father cut down a 3-iron and allowed her to hit plastic balls in the backyard. Because her mom worked the night shift at a local hospital, it was her father, a civil engineer with the Mississippi Department of Transportation, who would shuttle her to the local course.
When she was 9, McDonald caught the eye of Fulton C.C. course superintendent Stanley Ramey. Ramey’s son, Chad, was already an accomplished junior golfer, and he recognized McDonald’s talent.
“You could just tell she had it in her,” said Chad Ramey, now a senior at MSU.
Stanley Ramey encouraged McDonald’s parents to seek instruction at Old Waverly Country Club in West Point. Chad had already begun working with V.J. Trolio, the club’s lead instructor for the past 14 years. Trolio, along with short-game tutor Tim Yelverton, agreed to work with McDonald.
“She slowly came into her own,” said Trolio. “She didn’t get really serious about [golf] until she was 16. She just improved and improved.”
Having Chad around fueled McDonald’s competitive desire. She started out on the girls’ team at Itawamba AHS, then switched to the boys’ team, even though her parents had to petition the state association. McDonald agreed to compete from the same tees, which was an adjustment at first.
“The first year caught me off guard,” said McDonald, who played with two future Division I players in Ramey (Mississippi State) and Taylor Boggs (Louisiana-Monroe). “I said, wow, I need to gain a little bit of distance. But after awhile, it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t hitting it as far as they were, but I was getting it to where I could score. And that was the big thing. It definitely improved my game significantly.”
Added Chad Ramey: “She could hold her own out there. She hits it pretty long. Especially for high school golf, the courses weren’t too long.”
During McDonald’s tenure on the team, Itawamba won three state 4A team titles. As a senior, she won the 4A state boy’s individual championship, the first female to achieve this feat.
“It was tremendous in a couple of ways,” said Trolio of McDonald competing against boys. “Everyone views themselves by their peers at that young age, and she didn’t have other girls around her that were better than her. Her peer group was really herself. Being around the boys … she learned to be aggressive. She learned to pick her spots. She learned to rely on her strengths.
“She had that freedom just to be herself and be competitive the way she wanted to.”
Never a standout on the American Junior Golf Association circuit, McDonald’s breakthrough came at the 2010 U.S. Girls’ Junior at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, where she reached the semifinals. McDonald had qualified for the championship in 2009 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., but missed the match-play cut. At Trump National, she had a chance meeting with idol Annika Sorenstam, the three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion who was the guest speaker at the players’ dinner. McDonald says sitting and chatting with the Hall of Famer is her greatest experience in golf.
McDonald points to the 2010 Girls’ Junior, where she defeated notable players Ginger Howard and Victoria Tanco before losing to eventual runner-up Katelyn Dambaugh, as her career turning point.
“I knew I was OK, but I didn’t think I had it in me to do that,” she said. “It opened my eyes. It told me I can do this.”
Most Division I golf powers didn’t recruit McDonald, who chose from among Arkansas, Ole Miss and MSU, opting to stay close to home. Since McDonald’s arrival three years ago, the Bulldogs have gone from being ranked 130th in Division I to the top 30 this spring, qualifying for a second consecutive NCAA regional.
At the recent NCAA Championship conducted at Tulsa (Okla.) Country Club, McDonald carded a final-round, 3-under-par 67 to share fourth place with Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup competitor Stephanie Meadow of the University of Alabama. MSU finished sixth as a team, the best for a program that only qualified for its first NCAA Championship a year ago.
McDonald posted her first two college victories last year as a sophomore, including a 10-under-par performance in the NCAA Central Regional at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club. She finished 10th at the NCAA Championship and became MSU’s first first-team All-American since Carri Wood in 1995. McDonald carried that momentum into the summer, defeating Yueer Cindy Feng in the championship match of the prestigious North & South Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2. Feng was the runner-up to Talley at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Last fall, McDonald joined Ramsey and USGA champions Jordan Niebrugge and Scottie Scheffler in representing the United States at The Spirit International in Texas, where the USA won the overall competition.
The North & South victory put McDonald squarely on the radar for Curtis Cup selection.
“I know she caught the eye of the Missouri coach,” said Port, a University of Missouri alum. “She told me to keep your eye on this Ally McDonald.”
In March, while at a college tournament in Hawaii, McDonald got the call of a lifetime from USGA President Thomas J. O’Toole Jr.
“I was in disbelief,” she said. “I fell to my knees.”
McDonald scurried to share the news with her coaches, then enjoyed a celebratory moment with her mom.
“It’s awesome,” said Chad Ramey. “It couldn’t happen to a better person.”
“I can’t really find the exact word to say what it means to me,” said McDonald. “Obviously coming from a small town and not really having an amazing junior career… I started at the bottom and worked my way up to where I am. It’s amazing.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.