U.S. looks to repeat at Junior Ryder Cup
To revive the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team, the PGA of America entrusted a man who knew neither Jordan Spieth nor Anthony Paolucci, who knew little about the passionate biennial competition, who, frankly, knew little about junior golf. Reached by phone last week in Jackson, Miss., Ken Lindsay, a retired PGA rules chairman, reclined in his chair and retold the story of how he became the first U.S. captain to guide his team to victory.
“You’ve just got to have the players,” said Lindsay, 67, “and if you do, just get out of their way and let them play.”
What: 5th annual Junior Ryder Cup
Who: Eleven of the top 20 juniors in Golfweek’s rankings
When: Sept. 27-28
Where: Gleneagles Resort, Perthshire, Scotland
What’s at stake: After breaking through in 2008 for its first Junior Ryder Cup victory, the U.S. team looks to win on foreign soil for the first time.
After years of tinkering, the PGA finally seems to have settled on a formula that produces the desired result. In 2008, the U.S. defeated the Europeans, 22-2, its first Junior Ryder triumph, a victory as much a product of an unyielding American team as a Euro squad that was bereft of its finest talent.
What is seen and heard now is a U.S. unit brimming with confidence. The Americans captured the cup once, in historic fashion, and there remains little reason to believe they can’t do it again Sept. 27-28 at Gleneagles Resort in Perthshire, Scotland.
“We’ve just got a little more experience in bigger events,” said Oliver Schniederjans, 17, of Powder Springs, Ga. “But either way, we’re going to have to play great golf to win.”
Of course, expectations always are tempered when the U.S. team travels overseas, where the Yanks haven’t won in three trips (two officially). Different courses, different weather, different shot selection, different culture – they’ve all contributed to the U.S.’s winless record abroad. The man charged with reversing that ignominious streak is M.G. Orender, an affable former PGA of America president who seems to have a tighter grasp of this unit’s intricacies. That said, he hasn’t deviated much from the proven formula – and it’s why he already is channeling Lindsay’s captaincy.
“I’ve gotten advice from a few guys, and they said these kids just show up,” Orender said. “I’m not there to coach them; I’m there to watch them play and put them in the right pairings.”
Anthony Paolucci, 17, of Del Mar, Calif., won two AJGA invitationals this year, was No. 1 in the Junior Ryder Cup points standings, and earned his way on the team by virtue of his runner-up finish at the Junior PGA.
Jordan Spieth, 16, of Dallas, made the cut at the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Championship (eventually tying for 16th), won the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur and was a captain’s pick. He also played on the ’08 Junior Ryder Cup team.
Jim Liu, 14, of Smithtown, N.Y., became the youngest Junior Amateur champion in history this July when he won at Egypt Valley. He earned an automatic spot on the team.
Denny McCarthy, 17, of Burtonsville, Md., had three top-6 finishes this summer before breaking through at the Junior PGA, thus earning an automatic spot on the team.
Oliver Schniederjans, 17, of Powder Springs, Ga., won the AJGA Polo Junior last winter and was the 36-hole leader at the Junior PGA before stumbling in the final round. He was a captain’s pick.
Justin Thomas, 17, of Goshen, Ky., became the fourth-youngest player to make the cut at a PGA Tour event (Wyndham Championship) in 2009, then lost in the finals of the U.S. Junior. He was a captain’s pick.
Kristen Park, 16, of Buena Park, Calif., won the AJGA Tournament of Champions in July, her biggest victory since the 2007 U.S. Girls’ Junior.
Cassy Isagawa, 16, of Wailuku, Hawaii, was a virtual unknown among junior players until she won the Junior PGA in a stirring playoff.
Alison Lee, 15, of Valencia, Calif., won twice on the AJGA circuit this spring and was the top points earner on the girls’ side.
Doris Chen, of Bradenton, Fla., earned an automatic spot on the team after defeating Katelyn Dambaugh in the 2010 U.S. Girls’ Junior.
Ginger Howard, 16, of Bradenton, Fla., positioned herself for an automatic spot on the team after losing in a playoff to Isagawa at the Junior PGA.
Emma Talley, 16, of Princeton, Ky., won two AJGA events this year, including a record-breaking performance at the Huntsville Juinor, where she shattered the 54-hole girls scoring mark and set the record for largest margin of victory.
• • •
Isabella Deilert, Sweden
Manon Moll, France
Leona Maguire, Ireland
Albert Eckhardt, Finland
Kristofer Venture, Norway
Juhana Kukkonen, Finland
Kelly Tidy, England
Manon Gidali, France
Klara Spilkova, Czech Republic
Thomas Detry, Belgium
Moritz Lampert, Germany
Chris Lloyd, England
Only Paolucci, Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked junior, and No. 4 Spieth return from that victorious squad from 2008, the first year in which the PGA solidified its competition format – foursomes, mixed four-balls and singles – and selection criteria. Four years ago, the PGA abandoned its selection process, which was based on points awarded for PGA Junior Series events, PGA sectional qualifiers and the Junior PGA Championship. That essentially excluded the elite junior players, who were vying for AJGA and USGA championships. And when it came time for the Junior Ryder Cup, the U.S. team was pummeled – it lost the first five matches by a combined score of 43.5-20.5 (scores became official in 2002).
The PGA revamped its selection process before the ’06 matches, awarding automatic berths to the U.S. Junior champions, the top points earners during a 13-month period, and the winner and runner-up in the boys’ and girls’ divisions at the Junior PGA Championship. The rest of the 12-player roster was filled by captain’s picks.
In gathering notes before the 2008 matches, in Bowling Green, Ky., Lindsay “kept hearing from the kids that, hey, we know what’s happened in the past, but we’re not going to let that happen in the future,” he said. “They said that we’re going to be united and bring back the trophy.”
The U.S. dropped or halved only three matches that year at The Club at Olde Stone, exploiting a European squad that purposely weakened its selection criteria to make the matches more competitive. The Euros comprised their team based solely on the European Young Masters – an event for players 16 and younger. (They’ve since switched to more closely resemble the U.S. team’s selection process.)
“We felt like we had the best 12 players we could have had that year,” said Paolucci, 17, of Del Mar, Calif. “We all knew each other. We all got along really well, and we just happened to play really well that week. With them coming over on our turf, it was extremely difficult.
“Yeah, it’s always fun to win, but we would have liked to face their better players.”
That shouldn’t be a problem this year, as the U.S. team will take on a Euro squad that features, among others, British Ladies Amateur champion Kelly Tidy, returnees Moritz Lampert and Chris Lloyd, and GB&I Curtis Cupper Leona Maguire. They’ll also have an advantage playing at Gleneagles, site of the PGA European Tour’s Johnnie Walker Championship.
“You always play better on your home turf, because it’s your house,” Orender said. “You don’t want people to come over there and pummel you. So I expect them to be incredibly competitive, especially at home.”
If the ’08 U.S. team possessed the star power – LPGA hotshot Alexis Thompson and rising college standout Cameron Peck competed at Olde Stone – this year’s squad is rooted in cohesion and familiarity. Eleven of Golfweek’s top 20 juniors will tee it up in Scotland, a strong representation given the team requirements (high school class of 2011 or younger, American citizen).
Several U.S. members already have experience in team competition, having played on the AJGA Canon Cup squads. Schniederjans competed in Japan this summer as part of the four-man World Junior Team Championship, with Yaroslav Merkulov, Cameron Wilson and Bobby Wyatt. As a captain’s pick, Schniederjans may have the most pressure to perform, having edged Stanford commit Patrick Rodgers for the last available spot on the boys’ side. The 36-hole leader at the Junior PGA, and seemingly assured of an automatic berth, Schniederjans shot a final-round 76 to put his Ryder Cup status in jeopardy.
“I think everybody is comfortable with who is on the team,” said Schniederjans, a Georgia Tech commit. “Any time you’re on a team, there’s added pressure, and I just want to be able to go out there and play how I’m capable of playing.”
It was a similar summer surge that put Emma Talley on the team. An alternate in 2008, Talley watched from the back of the team room and behind the ropes as the U.S. romped to victory. One of the last players to secure a spot, Talley was driving home from the Junior PGA when she got the call.
“I don’t think my mom has ever seen me that happy,” said Talley, 16, who could form an intriguing partnership with fellow Kentuckian Justin Thomas in mixed four-balls. “I was just screaming, and I couldn’t believe that I was going to be a part of this incredible experience.
“I’m even more excited now because it’s finally sunk in.”
Lindsay remembers the feeling, and two years later remains an interested observer of the proceedings. He met the juniors for the first time during a weekend practice round at Olde Stone, then mostly stayed out of view, doling out visors and Gatorade and Band-Aids when needed. Even now he can recite most of his emotional team-room speech, in which he implored his young team to play for their country with pride, knowing he never had a chance to represent the U.S. before joining the Air Force.
Lindsay says he’s been revitalized by his Junior Ryder Cup experience, and thus chose to stay involved with PGA officiating on a part-time basis. Reminded over the phone that he’s the only victorious U.S. captain, he deflected credit.
“That week I had with those youngsters, that team, ” Lindsay said, “was as memorable as anything I’ve ever done.”
Now this is Orender’s team, an eclectic blend of personalities who hope this most recent excursion overseas produces an entirely different result. Orender has planned a few fly-fishing trips and falconry demonstrations during their stay in Scotland, all in an attempt to keep the focus on the juniors – just how Lindsay had stressed.
“I’d love to see them win,” Orender said, “but most of all I just want to make it an enjoyable experience, and that they play well. If they do that, the score will take care of itself.”