Two years ago, the eight-woman U.S. Curtis Cup team was locked in well before the end of January. In fact, the first five players had been announced before Christmas. But here we are in a Curtis Cup year, blazing through February with only a vague idea of what players might make that team.
That’s a good sign of the direction in which the event is heading.
For the first time in Curtis Cup history, U.S. captain Ellen Port hosted 14 potential team members Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at Champions Golf Club in Houston for a pre-selection practice session. Historically, that session has taken place after the team already was in place but Port’s recruiting strategy gave her the opportunity to get to know candidates a little better.
Port called the purpose of the weekend twofold. It allowed her to spend time with players one on one to observe demeanors as well as potential pairings, but it also was a reward for solid play throughout the past year and a half.
“One of my goals was to really … let them enjoy the fruits of their labor,” she said.
Port tapped fellow St. Louis native Jim Holtgrieve, a two-time Walker Cup captain, for some advice on format and what to look for at the session. She put the most focus on foursomes – rotating partners every nine holes during a 27-hole Saturday. She scheduled 18 holes of four-ball for Sunday morning. Players not put out by nationwide travel headaches on Friday played a quick 18-hole best-ball tournament that evening.
“I couldn’t have written a better script because we got it all,” Port said. “We had some fair weather, it was a little windy … and then when it got bad, it was bad. You were waiting to see if anybody was going to complain and who would play in the rain. They were all troopers.”
Port already has made scouting missions to the NCAA Women’s Championship, U.S. Women’s Amateur, AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, NCAA Fall Preview and the AJGA Ping Invitational. She has a few spring college events circled on her calendar for one last look.
Port pulled off the long weekend in Houston with help from Jack Burke Jr.’s wife Robin, against whom Port had played in amateur golf.
“She is such a player and such a lover of amateur golf and Champions is all about amateur golf in its purest form,” Port said of a place rich in golf history and memorabilia.
Jack, who had turned 91 the previous week, greeted each player by name and passed along an autrographed copy of his book, “It’s Only a Game: Word of Wisdom from a Lifetime in Golf.”
Another reason Port selected Champions? The green complexes at the Jack Rabbit course mirror those of St. Louis Country Club, where the Curtis Cup will be contested June 6-8. The greens rolled about 12.5 on the Stimpmeter.
In recent years, there’s been an increasing amount of hype associated with the Walker Cup. The men’s event has historically been played at the end of the summer while the women play their amateur team event just days after the NCAA Women’s Championship. As Port has found, the absence of a long summer of tuning up makes it harder to select the best eight players. A pre-selection practice session only enhances the event.
“You’re looking at the players’ last two years but you also want to get players who are peaking,” she said.
The Curtis Cup resides overseas after a stunning GB&I comeback at Nairn Golf Club in Nairn, Scotland two years ago. A fiery and passionate Port is out not just to change that, but to leave the competition better than she found it.