HOUSTON- On Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 14 players from across the United States gathered at Champions Golf Club in Houston to participate in a Curtis Cup pre-selection practice session. The weekend provided Captain Ellen Port with the opportunity to watch and interact with potential members of the USA Team for the 2014 Match, which will be contested June 6-8 at St. Louis (Mo.) Country Club. The players were grouped in the four-ball and foursomes formats used in the Curtis Cup Match, providing Port with firsthand insight into how the players might react during the Match. Among the weekend's highlights was the opportunity to spend time with two-time major champion Jack Burke Jr., who competed in five Ryder Cups for the United States and in 1957 cofounded Champions with three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret.
The USGA’s International Team Selection (ITS) Committee, with input from Port, will make the final selection of eight players to take on Great Britain and Ireland in June. Port, a six-time USGA champion and 1994 and 1996 Curtis Cup competitor, shared her thoughts on the practice session with the USGA’s Christina Lance.
This is the first time the Curtis Cup has had a pre-selection practice session. Why did you feel this was necessary?
After talking with past captains (both Curtis Cup and Walker Cup) and reading their reports, and also drawing from my own coaching experience, I thought it could provide the ITS Committee and myself with some valuable information. I guess you never know until you try, and I was very grateful for the support the USGA gave me in moving forward with the idea.
What was the agenda for the weekend?
It was pretty straightforward. We wanted to have the players compete in foursomes and four-ball with a variety of other players and to gather as much information as possible. Since this was the first time either Liz (Carl, the team manager) or I had been a part of a practice session, we didn’t know what to expect. But for the most part, all went according to plan. We had a couple of unforeseen situations, but like Jack (Burke) told us – you just have to “play through them.”
I had asked the players to do some assessing of their mental games and to read one of my favorite books on mental toughness, "10-Minute Toughness" by Jason Selk. They all pulled through and did a great job completing their homework. There were a couple of things on my agenda that didn’t get covered, so those items will have to wait until the team is selected.
What was your biggest takeaway from the session?
I took away some good information about the players on and off the course. I learned about their styles of play and their demeanors. I left knowing that there are some match-play strategies that I want to work on when the team is selected. We didn’t have as much time to talk about these as I would have liked. I left knowing that whichever players the Committee selects will be fierce competitors and friendly ones as well. I left wishing that I could captain 14 players.
What do you hope the players took away from the session?
I hope they took away a few more reasons why golf is the greatest game ever played. Foursomes and four-ball are such a blast to play and I think the girls thoroughly enjoyed themselves – some more than others on our rainy, cold last day! Of course, I hope they took away a sense of excitement about possibly making the Curtis Cup Team and what it is going to take to be their best in June. I hope they took away a lifetime of memories from being with 14 champions at Champions.
Why was Champions Golf Club selected as the host site?
Robin (Burke, Jack’s wife) is a good friend of mine and when I was asked who I thought might be willing to host us, she was the first person who came to mind. It was important to me that we go to a club that would welcome us and work with us to accomplish all of the goals for the practice session.
Suffice it to say, Champions Golf Club went above and beyond. They provided us with complete access to a great golf course, first-class accommodations, food and some off-the-chart entertainment. It doesn’t get any better than having a five-time Ryder Cup player and former captain talk to the players about how to be successful. Robin played on the 1998 Curtis Cup Team and shared some of her thoughts as well.
What did you learn that you will use at the Match in June?
Once the team is selected, I would like to talk more openly to the players about possible pairings for our team. I see so many great possibilities, but I want them to be a part of the process. I hope I learned a little bit about each player so that I can be a source of support and encouragement to them as they prepare for the matches and when they get to St. Louis. I think they are going to make my job really easy.
You’ve talked about your biggest takeaway. What was the most fun moment for you this weekend?
There wasn’t just one. Every aspect of the weekend was fun for me. As the captain of the future team, there is nothing better than watching 14 of the best American golfers playing meaningful rounds of golf. I loved seeing them lined up on the range warming up. I loved seeing them walk down the fairway. I loved watching them hit every shot and try to handle the speedy and difficult greens. And of course, being around Jack and Robin was extremely special for all of us. He gave all the players a signed copy of his book, "It's Only a Game: Words of Wisdom From a Lifetime in Golf," which is a gem.