ST. LOUIS – Practice rounds for team competitions 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 pre-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 other elite St. Louis-area male golfers.
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, 15, the reigning St. Louis C.C. junior champion; former PGA Tour pro Jay Williamson; four-time club champion Jack Eisenbeis; Bill Dewitt III, six-time club champion and current president of the St. Louis Cardinals (his father owns the team); 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 U.S. 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 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.
“I kind of wish I had done it for Walker Cup, getting some older Walker Cuppers to come play against the guys and just get a feel for it,” said Holtgrieve, the 1981 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who was paired with Berkmeyer. “We had some fun with it. But we also were serious. Skip wouldn’t give them a 2-foot putt.”
The teams split the four matches. Mariah Stackhouse, an All-American from Stanford University, and reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Emma Talley posted a 2-and-1 victory over Dewitt and Martin. 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 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (WAPL) runner-up, posted a 4-and-3 win over Eisenbeis and Lilly.
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 University of Southern California teammate, Kyung Kim, the 2012 WAPL champion. Berkmeyer holed a 4-foot par putt on No. 18 to help him and Holtgrieve to a 1-up win over 2012 USA 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.
It was a win-win for both sides. The players came away with a better understanding of foursomes and the men were unanimously impressed with the Curtis Cup players’ games.
“I’m very impressed with these young ladies as far as their maturity,” said Holtgrieve. “I had Jordan Spieth on my  Walker Cup Team and he was just the most mature young man I’ve ever met. I feel like that about these ladies. They’re very focused.”
The guys tried to do everything in their power not to lose. Even Holtgrieve was tossing out friendly barbs on the first tee. When it was announced 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 am used to guys spraying it a little bit,” said Stackhouse, smiling. “But they hit every fairway.”
Added Talley: “I think it was just different. We hadn’t played against guys. And I 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 a glimpse of some potential future pairings. The players, in turn, enjoyed facing someone other than themselves, which is what they did for the first 1½ days of the practice session.
“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 U.S. Women’s Amateur and a three-time U.S. 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 2½-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. Macdonald design at St. Louis Country Club. While not overly long by today’s modern standards – it is 6,569 yards 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 to pay careful attention to strategy.
Park called the greens some of the hardest she’s ever seen. And they weren’t rolling at championship speed.
While Port grew up in the area, she had not played much golf at St. Louis C.C., so a day before the practice session, 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 session simple but on point. Good friend Dawn Woodard, of Greer, S.C., a veteran of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, flew in to assist with team-building. Holtgrieve offered emotional words about the importance of playing for your country.
Port also had 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 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 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 is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.