MISSOULA – Two women who have long dreamed of Montana State Am titles finished strong to capture the sought-after prizes on Saturday evening. Missoula’s Jo Smith won the Senior title, and just a few minutes later, Laurel’s Morgan O’Neil sank the final putt to win the women’s championship.
O’Neil overcame a tough start to defeat Bozeman’s Annika Danenhauer by two shots. The Rocky Mountain College junior started the final round one ahead of Danenhauer, but bogeyed her first four holes. However, O’Neil never fell more than one stroke behind and played the next eight holes at 1-under-par.
Danenhauer stayed solid and wouldn’t give up the edge until late. The Bozeman High senior led by one going to the 15th tee. Then Danenhauer lost her grip for the first time in the tournament, posting back-to-back double bogeys on 15 and 16. By the 17th tee, O’Neil led by three shots.
The tournament, filled with drama and lead changes over the first 52 holes, felt almost anti-climatic at the end. O’Neil hit her tee shot left into the trees on the closing par-5 18th, but she smartly recovered and tapped in for bogey to win by two strokes.
O’Neil immediately understood the significance of her accomplishment after sinking the final putt.
“Just what it means to be a state champion and just what it means to have your name on a trophy forever. It’s just really special,” said O’Neil. “I’ve lived in Montana my whole life. To be a Montana state champion is very special to me.”
Defending champion Teigan Avery of Kalispell drilled a long birdie putt on 18 to finish in a tie for third place and 13-over-par. The current Montana Grizzly hit four birdies during the final round but could not find the consistency to make a charge. Butte Central’s Tricia Joyce, another high school senior making an impressive showing, tied with Avery for third. Joyce rarely made a mistake all week but only made four birdies over the entire three rounds.
The senior’s tournament had remained closer all week. When all of the top players had their own early struggles, it looked like it could be a crazy day. Smith, who started the day with a one-shot lead over Libby’s Bobbie Lacklen, lipped out two putts and started 5-over through the first four holes. But Lacklen was 4-over during the same stretch, and no one else made a serious run.
Smith settled down after the early jitters and built a three-shot cushion after a birdie on the par-5 10th hole. The advantage quickly disappeared when Smith double-bogeyed 11 and Lacklen carded a birdie on the par-3 12th.
The two remained neck-and-neck until the 16th when Lacklin’s double bogey and Smith’s par-4 gave the hometown favorite a two-shot lead again. Smith bogeyed 17, and Lacklen gained a stroke with a par setting up drama to the final putt.
Both players made par on the 18th, giving Smith the title she had always wanted. With the location of this year’s tournament, it was the perfect time for the win.
“It was kind of a bucket-list item for me,” said Smith. “I really wanted to win this on my home course. It’s a beautiful weekend, and I had about a thousand people rooting for me because I’m from here. Everybody knows me.”
Missoula’s Julia Jones jumped from fifth to start the day into a third-place finish thanks to an 84 that matched the best round of the day among the seniors. She ended up three strokes behind Smith. Polson’s Vicki Lucas finished in fourth place, four shots back.