There was a time when the amateur matches between the lady golfers of the U.S. and the British Isles were elegantly genteel affairs. In 1905 Miss Margaret Curtis of the U.S. team had her caddie carry two pairs of white gloves, one pair for herself and the other for her opponent, in case the twosome was caught in a downpour and their leather grips began to slip. But last week when the American women met the British in the Curtis Cup matches at Royal County Down Golf Club in Northern Ireland no one was getting kid-glove treatment at all.
After two days of tough, scrappy golf before some 10,000 people the Americans finally managed to win 10½-7½. It was the 11th victory in 15 tries for the U.S. (American teams have lost two matches and tied two) since 1932 when the series became officially recognized as the Curtis Cup. That was the year when Miss Curtis and her sister Harriot donated a trophy that is a copy of Paul Revere's Sons of Liberty bowl. Happily, the British have never understood the irony, or have politely overlooked it.
Margaret Curtis, who died in 1965 at 82, played golf into her 70s, using clubs purchased in a Boston bargain basement. Actually her daily rounds of golf seemed to serve as an excuse for a related activity: she took almost as much delight in scavenging balls in the rough of the exclusive Essex Country Club course in Manchester, Mass. At the end of one summer, her best as a ball hawk, she reported finding 62 varieties, including two Japanese brands. There was always a selection of old golf balls in a silver bowl in the hall of her Bullfinch house on Beacon Street, and if an acquaintance came to smoke an after-dinner pipe with her—another pastime she much enjoyed—he would be sent away with a pocketful of nicked golf balls. Miss Harriot, now 88, still lives in the house on Beacon Street, though she seldom ventures farther these days than the New England Baptist Hospital thrift shop, where she likes to buy her clothes.
Almost unnoticed at last week's matches was one of the sisters' 1905 opponents, Mrs. May Ross, winner of the 1899 Ladies' British Championship at Royal County Down. She set off for the course each morning, shooting stick in hand, determined to watch the new breed of golfers. What she saw were 19-, 20- and 21-year-old Americans, who came with golf bags the size of old railway trucks. Down the side of these bags were their names—Shelley Hamlin, Sunnyside CC, Fresno, Calif.; Lou Dill, Baywood CC, Houston, 1967 U.S. Amateur Champion; Peggy Conley, Spokane Country Club. The bags are a measure of their assurance and a reflection of the influence of professional golf on young American amateurs. "When your girls appear with those big bags it intimidates our golfers," a British newspaperman said. Even the youngest members of the U.S. team act like pros. There is a certain bravado in the way 21-year-old Roberta Albers strides down the fairway when her game is going well. "That girl has a killer instinct," an elderly golfer who was watching her declared in a slightly disapproving tone. On the course Peggy Conley squints at distant greens like Jack Nicklaus. "I've also got his hips," she chuckles. And she also has some of his power. On Friday Peggy reached the 496-yard 18th hole in two shots, the first woman anyone could remember ever doing so.
Shelley Hamlin, at 19, likes a crowd's company and she performs best for it. One afternoon before the matches began a hundred people stood around her as Bill Cox, a Ryder Cup player in the 1930s and now a commentator for the BBC, gave her some apparently unnecessary golf lessons—in her first practice round she shot a 72. Humorously, Cox suggested he might be able to give her some help with her driving.
"Your shot goes too far," he said.
"Yes, I do need help," Shelley dead-panned. "They're always straight down the middle and it's monotonous." Though she is a Stanford University sophomore and potentially the best woman golfer in the U.S., she is more a wide-eyed child than a coed. "You should have seen the Rolls-Royces that met us at the airport," she told reporters with a sigh. "On the way here from Belfast people out in the fields working would wave at us."
The other U.S. players were veterans Ann Welts, the three-time National Amateur winner; Jean Ashley, who won the national title once; and Tish Preuss, a player in three previous Curtis Cups.
In comparison, the British seemed hardly to have a chance. There was no national title holder on the British side. The English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish championships had been decided in late May after the Curtis Cup team had been named. The Ladies' Golf Union, which chooses the British team for the cup matches, had decided it could not wait for the results of the national tournaments because it had to order the team's uniforms.
"It's just like the LGU," said Enid Wilson of The Daily Telegraph. "It's more concerned with what a team looks like than how it plays. We always make an imperial muddle of choosing our side. The British are amateurs."
The LGU did do one thing, however, to buoy up the British amateurs' egos. It bought the players large sky-blue golf bags, perhaps not as large nor as flashy as the Americans', but remarkably impressive. "Did you see the bags they've got?" the father of one British player asked excitedly. "Of course, they are too big for ordinary use."
Only two members of the 1966 British Curtis Cup team were back. The other girls had been "very careless" about getting married and raising families, it was explained. Of the 1968 team, 24-year-old Ann Irvin from Blackpool was the best and most consistent golfer. The only other well-regarded players were Belle Robertson, who had been a member of the 1966 Curtis Cup team, and 19-year-old Dinah Oxley, a tall, shy, long-hitting girl who drives a tractor for the green keeping crew at her local course when she is not golfing. She finished second in the English championship, the best performance of any member of the British Curtis Cup team.
In 1889 Tom Morris was given $19 to lay out the Royal County Down. (The Irish like to say that after that money was spent, God did the rest.) For several days before the matches began a hot sun burned down on the seaside links, and in the heat the heavy, sweet scent of gorse hung heavy in the air. The course itself, running through the sandhills, wild rose and heather that stretch from the foothills of the fabled mountains of Mourne down to Dundrum Bay, baked hard. By Friday, when the matches began, the greens would not hold a shot. The only alternative was a pitch-and-run, a shot that is foreign to the Americans.
In the foursomes on Friday morning the U.S. team hacked and hooked and shanked. The only notable shot an American managed was Peggy Conley's four-iron to the 9th green, which ended up inside a lady's handbag. The U.S. lost two of the three morning matches and by lunchtime the crowd on the course had swollen to five and six deep around the greens. The spectators groaned with anguish, however, as the Americans quickly won the early holes in the afternoon. By the time the first singles match reached the 12th green the U.S. players looked like certain winners. Ann Welts was 1 up, Shelley Hamlin 3 up, Roberta Albers 4 up after six holes, Peggy Conley and Tish Preuss 2 up and Jean Ashley all square after three holes.
But the British team surged back and the galleries surged with them, running and jostling for position. In the excitement the roar of the crowd drew bathers on the beach, and in their swimsuits they mixed with the spectators in tweed plus fours. Periscopes appeared. Stewards began using bullhorns to direct the galleries. "There are more people here than at any pro tournament I've been to all year," one London newspaperman declared with amazement. Applause for fine American shots became reserved and polite. "I heard one guy behind me say, 'I hope she misses the bloody putt,' " Lou Dill reported later. "And bloody is a bad word over here."
The American team, few of whom had played before so large a crowd, became acutely sensitive to its mood. Peggy Conley hit into a trap and heard a replay of the shot in agonizing detail from a BBC commentator in a tower above her head. A roar went up on the 17th green, and a man in a crowd on the 18th fairway declared knowingly, "That's our Bridget Jackson—all even now." Little by little the Americans' prolike veneer was chipped away. Ann Irvin beat Ann Welts. Shelley Hamlin and Roberta Albers struggled in 1 up. Peggy Conley, who had been 3 up, and Tish Preuss, who had been 2 up, were tied, and Jean Ashley lost. By evening the British led 5-4.
On Saturday morning Mrs. Robert Monsted, the nonplaying captain of the U.S. team, shifted her lineup in the foursomes. She put what appeared to be the weakest team—Peggy Conley and Lou Dill—first in the lineup, preferring to use them as cannon fodder against Britain's strongest combination, Ann Irvin and Belle Robertson. She was willing to give away one match to make two wins certain in the foursomes. If the strategy worked, the British and the U.S. would go to lunch on Saturday tied. But Lou Dill and Peggy Conley, oblivious of their supposed fate, kept on almost even terms with the British pair throughout the morning, and when Ann Irvin fluffed a pitch into the rough at the 18th green the Americans halved the match. They won the other two foursomes and so went half a point up on Britain.
In the afternoon singles matches the American girls again started out confidently, and again it looked like a rout. The crowd became quiet. A steward on the 5th green told a group of women, "Girls, will you please move back from the bunker. You might stop an American ball from going in." And when Peggy Conley did get into trouble on the 3rd hole, an elderly lady chortled, "She's in the rough. Thank God for that." Then Britain's Ann Irvin, who had been 2 down to Shelley Hamlin, came back to finish 3 up, giving the spectators heart. Belle Robertson dueled through 18 holes with Ann Welts to finish all square. Now the British needed to win three of the four remaining matches to take the cup. On the back nine they played hard and well. At 17 Britain's Vivien Saunders and Roberta Albers were all even, and the match had been so intense that Roberta had not even noticed that her opponent was putting cross-handed. When Peggy Conley came to 17 she was just 1 up on Margaret Pickard, and Bridget Jackson was closing on Tish Preuss. The one match the U.S. was certain to win was Lou Dill against Ann Howard. She was 4 up with six to play. On the 17th green Mrs. Monsted, the American captain, anxiously twirled a sheaf of yellow papers. Written on the pages were notes for the presentations ceremonies—"friendship and warmth, important things." At the moment they seemed strangely ironical. But in the pressure Roberta squared her match, Peggy clung to her 1-up advantage and Tish Preuss won 2 and 1. The U.S. had survived.
"The Americans are stronger and better out of bad lies," the defeated and disappointed British captain, Mrs. Zara Bolton, said. "They just concentrate on golf. They are dedicated. They follow the sun to play golf. Our girls have other interests. It's still a game with us."
It is in the U.S., too, but a rougher game. The American girls gave up white gloves long ago.