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Practice Rounds: Beyond Routine

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St. Louis—Practice rounds for team competition typically follow an established blueprint: lots of repetition, mixed with a steady diet of analysis and game planning.

It can at times be a mundane and monotonous process, so the competitor in Ellen Port decided to take a different approach to the three-day Curtis Cup practice session held at St. Louis Country Club on April 10-12. The 2014 USA Captain knows that too much of the same routine can be “boring.”

“I wanted to be very purposeful for this (practice session), said Port, a six-time USGA champion and two-time Curtis Cup competitor who will guide her eight-female squad against Great Britain and Ireland on June 6-8. “Practice rounds are a necessary evil.”

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. A phone call to fellow St. Louis native Jim Holtgrieve, who captained the past two USA Walker Cup Teams and played on three other teams, led to a competitive foursomes match against eight elite St. Louis-area male golfers. (The men called themselves ‘The Hon. C.B. McDonald team’ and had shirts to prove it.)

In addition to the 66-year-old Holtgrieve, the men’s team included three-time Missouri State Amateur champion Skip Berkmeyer, a veteran of 26 USGA championships; Drew Lilly, the reigning St. Louis C.C. junior champion; former PGA Tour pro Jay Williamson; four-time club champion Dr. Jack Eisenbeis; Bill Dewitt III, six-time club champion and current president of the St. Louis Cardinals; six-time club champion and general chairman of the 2014 Curtis Cup Dr. Bill Sedgwick; and Toby Martin, owner of the club’s lowest Handicap Index and newly appointed member of the US Mid-Amateur Championship Committee.

To make it feel more like an actual competition, Port enlisted former television play-by-play announcer and longtime St. Louis resident Jay Randolph to introduce each participant at the first tee. Port even had a small trophy created: a stuffed squirrel that her teenage son, Drew, had harpooned in the backyard with a bow and arrow that was juxtaposed with a golf ball and flagstick.

The teams played foursomes (alternate shot), a format not often utilized outside of team competitions. Port felt that her eight woman squad needed the most practice with this format, and she also needed to see her combinations in competition as she tried to decide on her pairings.

“I  kind of wish I had done it for the  Walker Cup, getting some older Walker Cuppers to come play against my guys and just get a feel for it,” said Holtgrieve,  the 1981 US Mid-Amateur champion who was paired with Berkmeyer. “We had some fun with it. But we were also serious. Skip wouldn’t give them a two-foot putt.”

The teams split the four matches. Mariah Stackhouse, an All-American from Stanford University, and reigning US Women’s Amateur champion Emma Talley posted a 2-and-1 victory over Dewitt and Martin in the first match. UCLA freshman Alison Lee, No. 2 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), and partner Ashlan Ramsey, a Clemson freshman who was the 2012 Women’s Amateur Public Links (WAPL) runner-up, posted a 4-and-3 win over Eisenbeis and young Lilly in match No. 2.

Williamson and Sedgwick built a 3-up lead, but had to hold on for a 1-up win over reigning NCAA champion Annie Park and her USC teammate Kyung Kim, the 2012 WAPL champion. Berkmeyer holed a four-foot par putt on No. 18 to help him and Holtgrieve to a 1-up win over 2012 US Women’s World Amateur Team member and UCLA junior Erynne Lee and Mississippi State junior Ally McDonald, the 2013 North & South Women’s Amateur champion.

So, it was a win-win for both sides, though we’re sure Port would have preferred a win over a draw. The players came away with a better understanding of the foursomes game, and the men were unanimously impressed with the Curtis Cup players’ games.

“I’m very impressed with these young ladies in terms of their maturity,” said Holtgrieve. “I had Jordan Spieth on my 2011 Walker Cup Team and he was just the most mature young man I had ever met. I feel like that with these young ladies. They’re very focused.”

The guys tried everything in their power not to lose. Even Holtgrieve was tossing out friendly barbs on the first tee. When it was announced that the Curtis Cup Team would have the honor, he quipped, “That’s the last time they’ll have the honor today.”

And the women certainly were motivated to showcase their skills.

“I think we kind of expected to have the advantage off the tee because I’m used to guys spraying it a little bit,” said Stackhouse, smiling. “But in our match they hit every fairway.”

Added Talley: “I think it was just different. We hadn’t played against guys. And I honestly didn’t think they were going to be that good. It was a very good match. We had to make some birdies to win the holes.”

Though informal, the match gave Port a chance to see her team perform under some pressure and also provided her a glimpse at some potential future pairings in early June. The players, in turn, enjoyed facing someone other than themselves, which is what they did during Thursday’s nine hole session and Friday’s 36 hole practice.

“I think we both worked well together and we communicated well,” said Ramsey, speaking of her partnership with Alison Lee, a semifinalist in last year’s Women’s Amateur and a three-time US Women’s Open qualifier. “I think our games fit pretty well together.”

“It was fun competition-wise because we weren’t playing against each other,” added Lee. “I had fun playing with Ashlan.

Port used the two-and-a-half day practice session—the players arrived on Thursday afternoon—as not only a team-bonding experience, but also to have the eight golfers get a feel for the nuances of the C.B. McDonald design at St. Louis Country Club. While not overly long by today’s modern standards–it is 6,569 from the tips and the Match will be conducted at 6,245 yards (par 71)—the course features several unusual green complexes that can require even the best players pay careful attention to strategy.

Park called the greens some of the hardest she’s ever seen. And they certainly weren’t rolling at the championship speed of 10-10.5.

While Port grew up in the area, she had not played much golf at St. Louis C.C. So a day before her players arrived she played nine holes to re-familiarize herself with the layout. She was quickly reminded of why she considers the course one of the best in the state, and perhaps the country.

“C.B. said putting greens are to a golf course what the face is to a portrait,” said Port. “That is so true. These green complexes are phenomenal.”

Given such a short amount of time to be with the team, Port tried to keep the practice sessions simple but on point. Good friend Dawn Woodard of Greer, SC, a veteran of the US Women’s Mid-Amateur, flew in to assist with team-building. And Holtgrieve offered emotional words about the importance of playing for your country and not yourself.

Port also had the players fill out comment cards after each nine-hole match to get a better feel for pairings and chemistry.

All of these details served as subtle reminders that by the time the players arrive for the actual Curtis Cup in June, Port expects them to have a better understanding of the Match’s significance.

“My take is that they all fall in love with the game again,” said Port, a career amateur. “For them, sometimes it becomes like a job because they play so much. I want them to discover the true spirit of the game. And I think this group will.”

David Shefter

Senior Staff Writer, USGA

C 2012 United States Golf Association. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permission.

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