With a jubilant and patriotic crowd wildly cheering and waving flags, the victorious 1996 Great Britain and Ireland Team – fresh off an 11½-6½ Curtis Cup triumph over its American counterparts – boarded a golf buggy and rode down the 18th fairway at Killarney Golf and Fish Club in southwestern Ireland.
Taking in all the euphoria was 23-year-old Englishwoman Karen Stupples. A giddy rookie member of the eight-woman amateur squad, Stupples managed a 1-1 record in the two-day competition – both decisions coming against Kellee Booth in singles.
“The crowds were going nuts,” recalled Stupples in a recent phone interview. “It was packed. Ireland is just mad for their golf. It was just a great experience.”
The victory occurred during a renaissance for the GB&I Team. It was the third consecutive time in the biennial competition that the Cup would remain on the eastern side of the Atlantic (the teams tied in 1994 but GB&I retained the trophy by virtue of its 1992 win). Since breaking through for its first triumph on American soil in 1986 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., GB&I had claimed four of six Matches, including the 9-9 draw in 1994 at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn.
All of those setbacks against the United States of America, including a record 13 consecutive Match losing streak from 1960-84, seemed a distant memory. This competition finally seemed to be on equal footing, although the Americans still owned a distinct 20-6-3 overall lead in the series dating to the inaugural playing in 1932.
But as ESPN football analyst Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Despite fielding competitive teams, GB&I has not hoisted the Curtis Cup since that emotional day in Ireland 14 years ago. The six-Match losing streak is the second-longest in the event’s history and the Americans likely will be favored again when the three-day competition is contested June 11-13 at Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.
These recent results are baffling, even to Stupples, who was also a member of the GB&I Team that lost the 1998 Match at The Minikahda Club in Minneapolis and now competes on the LPGA Tour.
Then again, the 1996 GB&I Team did feature three future LPGA Tour players in Stupples, Mhairi McKay and Janice Moodie. Since then, only Wales’ Becky Morgan (1998 and 2000) and Stupples (1998) are GB&I members who have played consistently on the LPGA Tour, while the American squads have featured the likes of Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Angela Stanford, Hilary Homeyer (now Lunke) and Amanda Blumenherst; all but Blumenherst, a rookie in 2010, have won on the LPGA Tour, with Lunke claiming the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open in a playoff that included Stanford.
“To be honest with you, I personally feel the American girls are exposed to much higher levels of competition throughout their playing careers,” said Stupples, who starred at Florida State University before competing on her two Curtis Cup teams. “The USGA [does] a particularly good job in inviting [amateurs] to your Opens and letting them play in bigger events. I think that’s huge.
“Here in the States, [the competition] starts very early. You are playing competitions in high school. In England, you are not. There are no golf teams in high school.”
But according to the Ladies’ Golf Union (LGU), the governing body for women’s golf in Great Britain and Ireland, the times could be changing. For years, golfers who wanted a university experience that included golf had to travel to the United States. Shona Malcolm, the LGU’s chief executive officer, said in an e-mail that universities in the U.K. are starting to introduce golf as part of the college experience.
The LGU is also looking more closely at performances by GB&I players at U.S. colleges for its Curtis Cup selection process, something Stupples said wasn’t done during her days at Florida State. It wasn’t until Stupples graduated and returned home and began competing again in the U.K. that the selectors took notice of her game.
For Stupples, making the Curtis Cup was a childhood dream-come-true. She grew up near Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, and worked as a standard bearer during the 1988 Match at Royal St. George’s. Past Curtis Cup players Helen Wadsworth and Linda Bayman were members of her home club.
“I didn’t know if I would ever do it or not,” said Stupples of being a Curtis Cup selection. “I came over here to the States to improve my game and I think that really helped put my foot in the door to get my place on the team.”
Unlike many of today’s college stars, Stupples didn’t immediately turn pro. In fact, friends at home discouraged her from doing so. But after making a second Curtis Cup team in 1998, she obtained the necessary funds to give professional golf a try and entered LPGA Tour Qualifying School after the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Stupples, the mother of a 3-year-old boy, has since claimed two LPGA Tour titles, including the 2004 Women’s British Open, and posted a top-10 finish at the 2010 Kraft Nabisco Championship. She recently also qualified for the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club.
The lure of the pro game is a constant hurdle for Curtis Cup selectors on both sides. Recently, University of New Mexico All-American Jodi Ewart of England, a 2008 Cup participant, told the LGU that she would be turning pro immediately after the 2010 NCAA Championship. Despite the Curtis Cup taking place only two weeks after the NCAAs, Ewart didn’t want to wait to kick-start her pro career.
“The LGU is fully supportive of Jodi’s decision, albeit that we are disappointed that she’s ruled herself out of our team,” said Malcolm. “Jodi has been there … she performed well at St. Andrews in 2008, and has a wise head on her shoulders. Had she not played in 2008, we would have been more disappointed.
“Players turning pro early has to have an effect on selection but not always a detrimental one… It’s an issue for all amateur golf bodies. We recognize that it is almost inevitable that players reaching the top amateur ranks will want to try their hand on the tours, and we are supportive of that.”
The USA certainly isn’t immune to players turning pro at early ages. All but two players from the 2008 team have turned pro and two players – Alexis Thompson and Jennifer Song – on the 2010 squad will join the professional ranks after the Match. But the Americans also have shown the depth to survive the inevitable hits.
“I’m afraid [GB&I] doesn’t have the numbers to pull from these days,” said USA veteran and career amateur Carol Semple Thompson, who competed in a record 12 Curtis Cups and captained winning American sides in 2006 and ’08. “I’m not sure golf is growing the way we would like to see it grow in either the United States or Great Britain and Ireland. And I think Great Britain and Ireland is having trouble finding the strong, young players who have not turned pro. They are having the same problem we are. The young players go on and turn pro very quickly… Fortunately, we have larger numbers to choose from.”
One argument that has gained steam – at least among media members – is the notion of expanding GB&I’s boundaries to include continental Europe, as is the case at the Solheim and Ryder Cups. For years, the Ryder Cup was exclusively chosen from the United Kingdom before the rosters expanded to include Europe prior to the 1979 Matches. Since the switch, the contests have become fierce and intense, and far more competitive.
Some think that if the Curtis Cup allowed players from emerging powers such as Sweden and Spain, the balance of power would tilt back toward the middle.
But it’s a policy that doesn’t have overwhelming support from players and officials on either side.
Stupples, for one, wouldn’t want to see the team make-up altered.
“I’m not so sure how it would work,” said Stupples, who now resides in Orlando, Fla., and opposes any changes to the current Solheim Cup format. “Obviously, Britain hasn’t won in awhile. I think that would all change if they would just come out and win. But everything takes work and effort. Sometimes, you just need somebody there to tell the girls, ‘We can do this. Just because we haven’t done it in awhile, doesn’t mean we can’t do it this time.’ You have to have that mentality.”
Added Thompson: “I personally would not like to see it expand because the tradition has become Great Britain and Ireland against the United States. And I have a feeling Great Britain and Ireland would not like that either because they would have trouble getting their own players on the team.”
Then again, the Curtis Cup broke from tradition in 2008, going from a two-day event to a three-day competition that now includes four-ball matches (best ball) along with foursomes (alternate shot) and eight singles matches on Sunday. It was a proposal that needed to be approved by the LGU and USGA. The same cooperative vote would need to take place to expand the teams or boundaries.
Malcolm said it would take something like the Walker Cup adopting a similar policy before the LGU would even present such a proposal. Malcolm realizes the losing streak has much to do with the idea, but she believes everything is cyclical and GB&I will bounce back. Right now, she said, “there is no appetite to move in that direction.”
But Malcolm added that the LGU is being more diligent in its evaluation of potential players. A Women’s World Amateur Ranking system is in the developmental process, which could help selectors seek the best talent.
Stupples would have loved to have seen the 2010 team fly immediately to Boston upon selection and get familiar with the golf course. When she competed in the 1998 Match at The Minikahda Club, the conditions were so vastly different from England that it became difficult to adjust.
“I had never seen greens like that in my life,” said Stupples. “[And] I played college golf here. The greens at Minikahda … you couldn’t get away with sloppy shots. It took us all by surprise.”
Malcolm wouldn’t reveal the preparation plans of GB&I captain Mary McKenna, but said that more emphasis has been placed on “team preparation.” Prior to the 2009 Vagliano Trophy competition against Europe, GB&I members bonded while competing in a Ladies European Tour event and the results were positive.
“It’s a model which is likely to form part of any future LGU strategy on improving team performance,” said Malcolm. “The Walker Cup team suffered a similar run a few years ago but now the two men’s teams are very evenly matched on every occasion, and that is where the LGU is aiming to get with the Curtis Cup team, starting from 2010.”
As Stupples can acutely attest, winning offers a much better feeling than losing.
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.