PINEHURST — Stephanie Lau didn’t let a rough start on Friday morning hinder her confidence.
Facing a three-hole deficit in the final match of the 116th Women’s North & South Amateur at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course, the senior at Northwestern University stayed the course and calmly told herself a few things.
“Anything can happen,” she said. “Keep on believing in that and keep on making good decisions.”
Lau made it happen, rallying for a 2 and 1 victory against Gabi Ruffels in an exciting back-and-forth final.
“I needed to slow down. I just kind of regrouped and was like there’s a lot of holes left,” said Lau, a Fullerton, California native.
“I trust my game. It was like a bad decision plus unluckiness for the first three holes, so I knew I just had to keep making smart decisions.”
Lau ended the match with a short par putt on the par-3 17th, plucked her ball from the hole, and calmly embraced her competitor before a business-as-usual type celebration with her family and friends.
But the shot of the day came on the par-5 16th. With the match all square, Lau used a 5-wood to land her approach shot within feet of the hole and rolled in an eagle putt to seize control.
“I had 215 (yards) to the pin. It was a perfect 5-wood,” Lau said. “I aimed at the middle of the green, played my little fade (shot) in it and ended up getting really close. It was awesome.”
The victory earned Lau a spot among golf greats such as Morgan Pressel, Babe Zaharias, Peggy Kirk Bell and Brittany Lang.
The championship final came a day after each player needed extra holes to advance to Friday. Lau was trailing in her semifinal match entering No. 17 on Thursday before winning a 19-hole marathon. Ruffels needed 22 holes to claim her semifinal victory, setting up a thrilling final match.
The duo didn’t disappoint, halving just five of the 17 holes Friday.
Ruffels won the first three holes with pars to take a commanding lead, but Lau stayed the course and slowly crept her way back into the match.
“I knew she was struggling the first three holes, but I knew how good of a player she was and I didn’t take that lead for granted,” said Ruffels, an Australian native and 2018 early enrollee at Southern Cal.
“She played some great holes to come back to all square. From then on the match was a really good match. It was back and forth all the time.”
The two were all square at the turn and rolled in birdies on holes Nos. 10 and 11 to keep it that way before Lau drained a birdie from the fringe on No. 13 to take the lead. Ruffels evened things up on the par-3 15th with a par after Lau watched her ball roll back to her feet following a poor putt from the backside of the green.
But like she had throughout the morning, Lau bounced back and took command for good on No. 16.
“I still had three holes left — keep making good decisions, keep being committed — and I didn’t let it rattle me,” Lau said.
Ruffels gave a nod to Lau following the match, pointing out Lau’s impressive determination throughout the 17-hole grind.
“Coming down the stretch she made some really good putts, which I thought did it for her — especially that shot on 16,” Ruffels said. “She definitely put the pressure on all day.”
Lau, who was the runner-up at the Ladies British Amateur last month, said the victory will help her confidence when competing in future events.
“It was such a great match; Gabi played great. There were barely any holes we halved,” Lau said with a laugh.
“It kept going up and down. It was a lot of fun. I think I’m getting used to this match play, just setting aside the pressure and really focusing on the task at hand. I think I’m getting better at that. This only adds to my memory bank and I think it will only help me in the long run.”
Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3519.