This is the eighth in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
One of the notable qualities of the East Course at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., is its suitability for competition: Merion has adroitly hosted events ranging from the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Amateur to a number of international team competitions, and they have been good contests every time.
In the 1950s when the eighth Curtis Cup Match was played there, most courses that were sturdy enough for a modern U.S. Open proved unsuitable for the quirks of match play. But Merion was perfect.
“Merion’s secret, perhaps, is that it is such a sound course it demands good shotmaking and such a lovely course it encourages it,” Herbert Warren Wind wrote in a 1954 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Wind noted that the Curtis Cup produced such an intimate, sporting, well-bred atmosphere that he was obliged to think of it as a “tourney,” or better still, a “meeting.”
For the USA Team members, many of them first-time Curtis Cuppers, it was just plain exciting. “You were going to a new plateau in your career, and the match at Merion was a wonderful introduction,” said Barbara Romack, a rookie on the USA side.
Romack had committed something of a faux pas in this temple of golf during a practice round. At the age of 21, she had not yet won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship she would capture that fall.
Merion’s golf course architect, Hugh Wilson, had called for plantings of tall, feathery Scotch broom in the bunkers to leave the impression of British parkland and links courses.
The golf course superintendent approached Romack as she played practice shots from a bunker.
“How do you like our golf course?” the superintendent asked.
“Oh, I love the course,” Romack said, “but look at all these weeds in the bunkers! You gotta get rid of those before the match starts!”
The “weeds” stayed, and the Scotch broom remains a distinctive feature of the course today.
Four USA players were first-timers: Romack, Pat Lesser, low amateur in the 1953 U.S. Women’s Open; Mary Lena Faulk , the 1953 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion; and Joyce Ziske, the reigning Women’s North & South champion. Polly Riley and Dot Kirby were playing in their fourth match. Claire Doran, who had won two straight Women’s Western Amateurs, and Grace DeMoss were on the second team of their careers.
Their captain was a first-timer. Edith Quier Flippin was a stately woman with a good sense of fun. In her day, the Curtis Cup had yet to be organized but she was a good player who had once won the Women’s Eastern Amateur. Flippin had a daunting task – to win back the cup. For the first time, in 1952, a team from Great Britain & Ireland had won the match.
Most of the spectators that week were women. They all seemed to know of each other, Wind wrote, “so Main Linear in countenance and accent that a stranger might well have mistaken any one of a score of them for the non-playing captain of the British side.”
The galleries were very small and Golf World’s Tom O’Neill said the lack of spectators was “something that pleased the mainliners who constituted the bulk of them. Some… remarked how pleasant it was to be able to see a match without a crush and to lunch in comfort.”
It was only the second time since the match originated in 1932 that Glenna Collett Vare wasn’t part of the team as a player or captain, but Vare was there, trudging through the rough with alternates Mary Ann Downey, Edean Ihlanfeldt and past players Helen Sigel Wilson and Louise Suggs. Business tycoon John McAuliffe strolled along the practice tee, lining up players for the following winter’s National Mixed Foursomes at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach.
The GB&I team members were poised in their role as defenders and for the first time, a team wore uniforms. Spiffy blue and white outfits for GB&I, from their caps to their socks. The Americans were go-as-you-please. “Individually nifty,” O’Neill wrote, “but collectively discordant.”
The women played the course at nearly full stretch, an average of 30 yards forward of the men’s championship markers, and the scoring on day one was very good for the Americans. By mid-afternoon the outcome of the match had been fairly well decided, with the USA conclusively winning all three foursomes.
The 27th hole, the ninth, was particularly kind. A stiff 160-yard par-3 from an elevated tee to a green protected by a stream in front and five of Merion’s famous “white faces,” yielded birdies to all three of the American pairings. “The white faces of Merion,” incidentally, was a term for Merion’s bunkers coined by Chick Evans when he played there in the 1924 U.S. Amateur.
Claire Doran played particularly well in winning her singles match after a rocky start, sailing through the last 26 holes of her match in three under even fours. “I doubt if any woman golfer has ever played a more brilliant stretch in competition over a major course,” Wind wrote. She defeated Jeanne Bisgood, 4 and 3.
Fort Worth’s Polly Riley made a fashion statement with an eye-popping green skirt and an orange blouse in her singles match with Elizabeth Price, who may have been distracted by the get-up as she won only two holes. Riley settled the matter, 9 and 8.
That singles match, the third of the afternoon, gave the Americans an insurmountable 5-1 lead, and Gracie DeMoss defeated Jessie Valentine, 4 and 3, for the USA’s sixth point. The best GB&I could do was win the two remaining singles matches and the final margin was 6-3.
For the presentation, the Americans finally dressed up and wore matching white blazers with a Curtis Cup team insignia.
It was a wonderful victory for the USA side, but there may have been a sense of impending doom when they heard the departing words of the GB&I captain, Mrs. John B. Beck.
“The answer is… we don’t get at home many such delightful days as these two at Merion,” Mrs. Beck said. “So, two years hence, bring your sweaters and sweat shirts across the pond and we’ll be after you.”
In the very next meeting, at Sandwich in 1956, Great Britain and Ireland recaptured the cup. The weather was ghastly.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.