Les girls: life under pressure

A look-back at the Curtis Cup and the Women's Amateur and their heroines, Mrs. Smith and Miss Quast
September 07, 1958

At 8:30 on the morning of the second and final day of the recent Curtis Cup match at Brae Burn—as you probably remember, the team of women amateurs from the British Isles retained possession of the cup by splitting the nine points (3 foursomes, 6 singles) with our American team—the two players in the first of the six 36-hole singles matches drove off. Since a 36-hole match can take innumerable twists and turns, the group of us who walked down the fairway after this first twosome were professionally counseling one another not to bear down too closely during the morning rounds—one should always keep as much energy in reserve as possible for the afternoon, when the really meaningful moments arrive, and especially since this Curtis Cup (with the British Isles leading 2-1 after the foursomes) had all the earmarks of developing into another of those cliff-hanging affairs in which the ultimate result is suspended in the balance until late, late in the afternoon. "As a matter of fact," Frank Pennink of the London Daily Mail observed at 8:35, thinking of the many holes and fleetingly crucial moments ahead and smiling wryly at the very thought of it, "I suppose it will all hinge again on the match between Polly Riley and Frances Smith." Mr. Pennink was referring to the last time the two teams met, at Prince's in Sandwich in 1956 when, with all the other matches concluded, the losing and winning of the cup eventually depended on the tight and intensely dramatic duel between these two veteran internationalists. They had gone to the 36th all square, and Mrs. Smith had won it there by hitting a great iron to that difficult home green. Now at Brae Burn, in the 1958 meeting, they had been drawn together again, each having been placed by her captain in the final singles spot.

At 5:20 p.m., roughly some nine hours after the long day's play had begun, Miss Riley and Mrs. Smith came trudging up the hill to the 16th or 34th fairway—and once again, quite incredibly, the outcome of another international competition rested on them. This is an almost insupportable amount of pressure and responsibility to have weighing on a player's shoulders. Each stroke is terribly critical, and there are moments when even the most seasoned and positive-minded competitor, thrust into such a spot, can think only of the heavy consequences of playing a bad stroke. As they walked up the 34th, Mrs. Smith was holding a 1-up lead over Miss Riley. I think we all know Polly well by now—she has been our outstanding match player among the women amateurs for quite some time—but a word at this juncture about Frances Smith might not be amiss since she is hardly known in this country.

Mrs. Smith, who was Bunty Stephens when she first came to prominence in English golf about a decade ago, is now in her early middle 30s. She has a most unimpressive swing. It includes what surely must be the longest pause at the top of the back-swing in all of golf. While she is holding it there at the top, a train could dispatch and pick up passengers. After that long halt she whips the club through to the finish in good style but, taken all together, her swing, neither rhythmic nor powerful, is the type one would usually associate with a mid-90s shooter. Mrs. Smith, moreover, is a pale and frailly built person. When you watch her play a grueling 36-hole match, your sympathies go out to her: she looks like she will be lucky to finish, let alone play anything resembling her best golf. But somehow she does, just about always. As a matter of fact, this slight, quiet, entirely undramatic girl has come through with more first-rate shots in the clutch than any other golfer, man or woman, in the last 10 years.

On the 34th, a rugged par 4 for the ladies, Frances held her 1-hole margin when both she and Polly took fives. In truth, she was lucky to get this half, for Polly just missed dropping a 20-footer for her four, and Frances, after too bold an approach putt, had to hole a hard-to-read five-footer coming back for her five. The 17th (or 35th) at Brae Burn is a difficult par 3, 212 yards long, swinging downhill all the way from a high, perched tee to a green protected by trapping along both the left and right sides and by the rumbling contours of the fairway before it, which break off toward the traps. Up first, Polly, using a three-wood, played a very fine shot. Hit low, it bounded onto the green, but it was a shade too strong and just did trickle over the back apron into the rough behind. This was a rough break for Polly, but she is a redoubtable chipper and she would no doubt manage her three. With this stern probability confronting her, Mrs. Smith hit an even better shot, a high four-wood that was right on the flag every yard of its flight. It floated down on the front apron and finished about 20 feet short of the hole. Both made good bids for their birdie and halved the hole with threes. Onto the 36th, 360 yards, most of them uphill, Mrs. Smith was still 1 up. Here, as composed as if she were merely out for an evening walk, Frances won the hole and the match, and insured the 4½-4½ tie in the team match by playing a straight drive down the right side of the fairway, and following it with a beautifully hit three-iron that almost struck the base of the flagstick.

Frances Stephens Smith is the daughter of a Lancashire professional, Fred Stephens of the Bootle Golf Club, outside of Liverpool. As one of her countrymen put it during the week, "Frances is a very plain girl, of face and figure. In a gathering she is retiring to the point of invisibility. You hear talk of negative charm, and maybe this is what she has, but I think it is more than that. She has such a lovely manner about her you like her immensely, and there is such fortitude in this girl that you admire her immensely." Frances has won the British Ladies' Championship twice and the English Championship three times. Some three years ago, she married Roy Smith, a test pilot for Scottish Airways. It was an extremely happy marriage. Last summer he was killed in a plane crash, a few months after the birth of their daughter. Frances started to play golf again this spring. In her first tournament, the Lancashire County Championship, she was eliminated in the first round. She looked better in the intercounty matches and, when her play in the British Championship convinced the selectors she was very much her old self, she was named to the Curtis Cup team for the fifth time.

To come through in the clutch just once, as Frances did at Brae Burn, is no small accomplishment. To come through as regularly as she has—well, I don't really know what one can say. In any event, here, for your astonishment, is her record in Curtis Cup competition:

1950. In her debut in the cup matches, at the Country Club of Buffalo, she won her foursome (with Elizabeth Price) 1 up, the first of her many journeys to the 36th green. In the singles she faced Mrs. Mark Porter. Three down with three to play, she won the 34th, 35th and 36th to halve the match. On the crucial 36th (390 yards) she put her approach six feet from the hole.

1952. The match was held at Muir-field. Partnered with Jessie Valentine, Frances was beaten in the foursomes. In the singles, something went wrong, and she didn't go to the 36th green, only to the 35th in defeating Marjorie Lindsay.

1954. At Merion, Frances again lost her foursome but, playing in the No. 1 slot in the singles, outlasted Mary Lena Faulk 1 up. Frances won the 36th with a birdie 4. After pulling her second into the rough, from an awkward sidehill stance she contrived to manufacture a shot that got the ball onto the green...five feet from the cup.

1956. In this match, played at Prince's in Kent, Frances won her foursome (with Elizabeth Price) and became the direct agent of the British Isles' 5-4 victory when she won the decisive match from Polly Riley on the 36th.

1958. Brae Burn. A victory in the foursome with Janette Robertson and, as we have described, once again all the way to the 36th in the cup-deciding singles.

How does Frances Smith do it? What does she have that enables her to work such wonders? Her friends explain it something like this. She holds onto her timing in the most nerve-wracking situations because she has superb concentration. She holds onto her concentration because she has a purposefulness that never wavers and a wondrous heart. I suppose that this is all there is to it except a fine talent for golf.

Frances Smith had to fly back to England the day after the Curtis Cup matches were over and, so, could not play in the Women's Amateur Championship, which started about a week later at the Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Conn., in the heartland of what sociologists, I believe, call the Gracious Living Belt, where a Martini is usually referred to, in an intimate tone, as a Martin or even a Mart and where a few old timers are still persevering with automobiles operated by an automatic gear shift. Had Mrs. Smith been able to appear at the championship, I am sure she would have been struck by the size of the field (a record 189 entrants owning handicaps of 6 or less) and by the thought-provoking youthfulness of the large majority of the entrants. The end of summer seems to be the time of year when one realizes with some acuteness that another year has flown by and that this no doubt is the reason why the old calf muscles bunch into a hard knot after he has ascended a little pimple of a hill. For myself the ever-swifter flight of the years used to be symbolized by the sudden realization in late August that we were already voting for a new Miss Rheingold when it could not possibly have been three months before, five at the most, that we were registering in the primaries for the last election. The Women's Amateur has now become for many of us an even sharper annual dagger because, as one gets older, the field keeps getting younger. Two of the best golfers at Wee Burn were Judy Eller, the 17-year-old National Junior champion, and Sherry Wheeler, the 17-year-old runner-up in that event. They are not just good "girl golfers"—they are good golfers. Well, as Old Tom Morris said to Andra Kirkaldy in his famous burr as they walked off the 18th green at St. Andrews, "Nel blu, dipinto di blu."

Anne Quast, the 21-year-old charmer from the state of Washington who gained the championship at Darien, is a perfect illustration of what this tournament has been coming to. She was all of 14 when she made her first appearance in it at Portland in 1952 (and incidentally won her first-round match). Between then and her notable victory at Wee Burn, she has twice been a quarter-finalist and once a semifinalist. En route to becoming a champion she has had to work hard, not so much on her game as on her competitive temperament. High-keyed by nature—she is an unusually aware and responsive girl—she has had to learn how to muffle her intensity and allow enough breathing space to enable her obvious aptitude for playing golf shots to come through. Over the years Anne's swing has remained fairly much the same. It is a good and sound swing, necessarily, but by the best standards not a really pretty one, there being a sense of lift in the way she takes the club back and a fairly pronounced dip in the downswing as the shoulders turn the arms into the ball. I mention these aspects of Anne's swing because they are usually part and parcel of the technique of a scatter-hitter, and she is exactly the reverse—as straight as a string. On her afternoon round in the final against Barbara Romack, the 1954 champion, Anne hit every fairway when she was playing a wood off the tee. All in all, she was off the fairway only three times on those 16 holes: on the short 7th or 25th where she pulled her iron into a trap; on the 26th where she made a similar error on her approach; and on the 30th, a par 5, where her second, a long fairway wood, rolled over the left side of the green into the fringe of tall grass which Joe Dey of the USGA, "The Father of the American Rough," had ordained as a collar.

Anne is nearly always this straight, and my guess, for what it is worth, is that this enviable down-the-middle-ness comes from the superb "square" position on the club her left hand commands from the beginning of the address and from her cultivated instinct for driving her hands and the clubhead square through the ball no matter how hard she may be toiling on a shot. She also has the valuable gift, which is not common among women players, of judging distance very well on her iron shots, and this as much as any one factor set up her 1-up victory over JoAnne Gunderson, the defending champion, in their semifinal match, in which Anne was outdriven by 25 yards on the average and on one hole, where she did not miss her tee shot, by 65 yards. JoAnne does that to everyone. Her wonderful hip drive puts her hands in the strongest position possible, as it does for the best male players, and she can powder that ball 265 yards on occasion, swinging within herself. She probably averages about 240 yards off the tee.

JoAnne—to digress for a moment—is the most colorful personality women's golf has produced in quite some time. On the course, in addition to playing such full-blooded shots, she goes at the game as if it were a game, approaching the whole complicated business with a genuine friendliness of spirit that makes the speeches on sportsmanship by self-appointed character-builders seem like the palest gauze indeed. On the 14th hole of her semifinal with Anne Quast (with whom she roomed during the week), Anne outdrove her for just about the only time during the match. JoAnne had just lost three holes in a row, and you could certainly have excused her if she had been all grimness at the moment but, as she walked past Anne on her way to the ball, she looked over, as casual as ever, and said with a private wink, "Hello, slugger." She has apparently limitless energy. In the Curtis Cup, she was carried to the 36th green by Jessie Valentine in an exhausting match. The next minute she was running full tilt out onto the course and up the steep wall of the hill on the 17th to root home some of her teammates who were still deeply embroiled in their matches. At Wee Burn in her semifinal, when her drive on the crucial 16th ended in an unplayable lie in the rough, she loped all the way back to the tee, laced out a magnificent drive and came loping all the way down the fairway again, easily. She is something, this girl!

To defeat JoAnne (who had gone to the turn in 35, two under), Anne, as we have mentioned indirectly, had to make up a three-hole deficit on the last nine. Earlier in the week, in the fourth round, Pat O'Sullivan, returning to amateur competition in this tournament, had also thrown an outward 35 at Anne and had also stood 3 up at the turn. To play yourself back into a match when your opponent is hitting everything right and holes are running out fast takes an absolutely indelible determination and, since the ball must be hit in the last analysis, great golf. In the 36-hole final against Barbara Romack, Anne fell behind early in the morning round and at the halfway point was again in her familiar position, 3 down. She was lucky to be that close, for her swing was noticeably flatter than usual and her action tight, and Barbara, in peak form, was playing easily and well and looking as if she would go on doing so all day. Early in the afternoon round, swinging better and looking a bit more relaxed in general, Anne picked up two holes when Barbara missed shortish putts, but when she went over par on the 25th and 26th—and was lucky to lose only one of them—she was 2 down once more and in trouble. And then, once again, when most golfers would have subconsciously started rehearsing a graceful runner-up's speech and trying to remember the greenkeeper's name, she mounted a rally which changed the complete complexion of the match. She took the hard 27th with a par when Barbara needed three putts from the edge of the long green. Only 1 down after this, she then went bursting off on a streak of such brilliant golf on the next seven holes that she won four of them, and the match, despite the fact that Barbara played par golf over that stretch. Here is how the new champion did it, shot by shot.

She squared the match on the 28th, a par 5, 477 yards long, with a birdie: a drive down the right side of the downhill fairway; a big three-wood on which she gambled on carrying the key fairway trap and did so by about four yards; a fine pitch with her nine-iron about eight feet from the cup; and the putt, her first of any length in the afternoon.

On the 29th, a 355-yard par 4 where the green is tucked just beyond a menacing burn, she pumped a three-iron just over the hazard to within 10 feet of the stick. She missed the putt and halved the hole with Barbara, who had played it equally well.

The 30th is a sharp dogleg to the right, 330 yards long. Barbara was in trouble off the tee. Anne was down the middle with her drive and on with her six-iron approach, about 25 feet below the pin. She holed for her birdie 3 and went out in front, 1 up.

Two fine fours on the 31st, a short par 5, 427 yards long, doglegging to the left. Anne's drive finished at the extreme corner of the break, a yard inside the edge of the rough. She was about 215 yards from the green, but she hits long fairway woods, and here her three-wood rolled over the green into the rough to the left. She was down in two, chipping to three feet with her nine-iron. Quast still 1 up.

Two fours on the 32nd, a 326-yarder where the sidehill cant of the fairway adds difficulty to the approach. Anne, after a good drive, missed her approach (with a seven-iron) badly, hitting behind the ball and dumping it half the way to the green. She scrambled out her par with a deft pitch with her wedge that bounced up to within two and a half feet of the cup. Interestingly enough, on her first approach, Anne not only missed the shot but her practice swing, launching a nice hunk of turf.

A big hit is required on the 33rd, a one-shotter measuring 205 yards, all carry to a tough elevated green. Anne, using her driver, came through with a first-class tee shot that carried on, over the right-hand frontal trap. She got down in two from 20 feet for a winning 3, Barbara missing from nine feet after exploding from the right-hand bunker. Quast now 2 up.

The burn again is the key hazard on the 340-yard 34th, encircling the green area tightly. Anne played a really elegant approach with her five-iron, the ball floating down onto the front edge and stopping just about hole-high nine feet to the right. Barbara was just short on her try for her three from 18 feet. Anne took quite a while to get set over her uphill nine-footer and then stroked it in the middle of the cup. Quast wins, 3 up and two to play.

Anne Quast was 4 under par for the 16 holes of the afternoon round—and four under for the beautifully played final seven holes in which she went 443 443 3 against a par of 544 543 4. It is not easy to remember a finish in the final of important match-play championship to compare with it. As a matter of fact, the only one of similar luster I can think of offhand was pulled off in a silent movie called Spring Fever, starring William Haines who was unbeatable on the screen. Haines, as I remember it, was 6 down with seven to play. By the 18th he had fought back to even, and then he won the 18th when, with his opponent up there stony for his bird, he holed a full brassie shot. Anita Page, I think it was, saw him in a different light after this, which was the least she could do.

PHOTOFRANCES SMITH (LEFT) AND HER FOURSOME PARTNER, JANETTE ROBERTSON PHOTOQUAST AND GUNDERSON EAT AND TELEPHONE AFTER THEIR SEMIFINAL MATCH ILLUSTRATION28TH HOLE
d
3-w
9-i
2p
ILLUSTRATION29TH HOLE
d
3-i
2p
ILLUSTRATION30TH HOLE
d
6-i
1p
ILLUSTRATION31ST HOLE
d
3-w
1p
ILLUSTRATION32ND HOLE
d
7-i
w
1p
ILLUSTRATION33RD HOLE
d
2p
ILLUSTRATION34TH HOLE
d
5-i
1p
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)