June 2, 2008

Old Course, Old Story

With Stacy Lewis and Alison Walshe leading the way, the United States claims another Curtis Cup, a 13-7 trouncing of GB&I at St. Andrews

Lewis went 5-0 as the U.S. rolled for captain Thompson.

Lewis went 5-0 as the U.S. rolled for captain Thompson.

Perhaps just as well, given that the overall record since 1932 has now reached an unwieldy 26-6-3 in favor of the United States, the Curtis Cup, at least according to the inscription on the trophy, always has been more about "friendly rivalry" than winning and losing. Still, it'd be nice to have a wee bit more of the rivalry while maintaining the friendships. After last week's sixth successive defeat for Great Britain Ireland, a 13-7 shellacking over the Old Course at St. Andrews, legitimate questions need to be asked about the competitive future of this grand old match.

Of course, this latest in the series hardly helped the cause of the perennial underdogs, GBI (or, in this case, GB, as four Scots, three Englishwomen, one Welshwoman and no Irishwomen made the eight-member squad). Expanded from two days to three and from 18 individual games to 20, the 35th Curtis Cup played even more than before into the hands of the stronger, deeper visiting side captained for the second time by the redoubtable Carol Semple Thompson. Of the five series of matches, the U.S. won four and halved one, a record of domination that made some wonder—not for the first time—about adding, Ryder Cup-style, the continent of Europe to the British and Irish cause.

One very definitely not pushing for such a change is Thompson, whose 12 Curtis Cup appearances between 1974 and 2002 remain the most on either side.

"I like the tradition of playing GBI," she said after watching her charges take the final-day singles by a score of 5½ to 2½. "I can understand that they would be a little frustrated at this point since we've won six in a row, but I think that the level of their play is fantastic. The matches are always well fought, and there's plenty of talent on both sides to make it a good match."

While there is much truth to what Thompson says, the woman who has scored more points, 20, than any other Curtis Cupper, is also being more than kind. In fact, this time around she was part of the problem, so superior to her non-playing counterpart, Mary McKenna, was the amiable Pennsylvanian.

For example, when on the second day the turgid pace of play had reached a "peak" of five hours and 22 minutes in the four-ball match between Alison Walshe and Stacy Lewis of the U.S. and the English pair of Liz Bennett and Florentyna Parker, McKenna, eight-times Irish champion, chose to excuse the slowness of it all. Thompson, in contrast, was more honest.

"The pace of play was horrible," she exclaimed. "I have asked my players not to consult together a whole lot on their putts, but they still seem to be doing some of it.

"I think it's definitely a function of coaching. I think it's a function of watching professionals play on television. I think it's college play, where they get upset about having six-hour rounds, but they have six-hour rounds. So it's become almost the norm. I just don't have an answer for it."

For McKenna, however, the mistakes started early and just kept coming.

Quizzed on the eve of the matches as to the fitness of the youngest-ever Curtis Cup player, 15-year-old Carly Booth, who had been absent from the final two days of practice, the Irishwoman launched into a lengthy explanation about how the youthful Scot was "great," had been "striking the ball super" and was "raring to go." Unfortunately, no more than five minutes later, journalists were talking to Booth, who described how a sore throat and a nasty rash over large parts of her body had laid her low and that she was "feeling tired" and some way short of match fitness.

Walshe and Lewis

One day later the hapless and perhaps disconnected McKenna—who last played Curtis Cup golf in 1986 and whose last bout of team captaincy (World Amateur Team Championship) came in 2000—was at it again. Having spent much of the practice days extolling the undoubted virtues of local knowledge over an Old Course that rarely has been in better condition, she then (in a naive effort to be "nice" and have all her charges play at least once each day) left out Krystle Caithness, the 19-year-old Scot, from each of the morning foursomes. Caithness, who would go on to win all three of her matches, hails from, uh, St. Andrews.

And there's more. Just to cap off a disastrous week on the decision-making front, McKenna saved her worst error for the last day of eight singles. Ignoring a deteriorating weather forecast that would see the Old Course's back-nine playing into a wet and wild east wind off the North Sea, and the fact that her side was starting out three points behind, she inexplicably placed her strongest players—Scots Michele Thomson, Sally Watson and Caithness—toward the end of the order.

To the surprise of no one other than McKenna, the destination of the cup was soon decided. Needing just three points to clinch victory, the U.S. won the top four singles, the cup-clincher coming from Lewis in the third match. That the three Scots, along with England's Parker, mustered 2½ from the bottom half of the singles draw was rendered irrelevant by McKenna's apparently complete lack of tactical acumen.

Asked afterward what her strategy had been for the singles, McKenna raised her eyebrows at the mention of the word, as if it was occurring to her for the first time that the order of play could be used for such a purpose. "Well, I think right through—the team is strong right through," she said, searching unsuccessfully for coherency. "I mean, I don't think—the strategy was Breanne [Loucks] reacts to leading the team, getting out, needs the oomph, and I thought she would take off that way."


All of which should not disguise the fact that the U.S., for whom both Lewis and Walshe emerged with perfect records, was visibly superior to the hosts, although it has to be acknowledged that, with more thoughtful leadership and a stronger wind over the first two days of the matches, the overall margin of defeat would surely have been narrower.

Walshe, in fact, provided one of the match's greater ironies. The 23-year-old Bostonian, who has lived in the U.S. since age 5, actually was born in Galway, Ireland. In a contest bereft of those from across the Irish Sea, she would no doubt have made a welcome addition to the home ranks. Come to think of it, maybe that is the key to at least slowing this seemingly relentless tide of American victories that currently stretches back as far as 1998. Next time, let's make the match Scotland versus the United States Ireland. Hey, it can't get any more one-sided than it already is.