No Matter the Pairing, Deep USA Team Thriving at Quaker Ridge June 9, 2018 | Scarsdale, N.Y. By Bill Fields

A talented roster that includes Mariel Galdiano (left) has made team pairings quite easy for USA captain Virginia Derby Grimes. (USGA/Steven Gibbons) 

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Given their relaxed vibe and impressive performance through the four-ball and foursomes matches at Quaker Ridge Golf Club, it would stand to reason that the Americans have meshed well at the 40th Curtis Cup Match. If further confirmation was needed, though, you just had to look at how USA captain Virginia Derby Grimes paired her players on Friday and Saturday.

Derby Grimes used 10 different combinations over the four sessions, matching the most employed by a USA Team since the Match format changed in 2008 to two days of partner play followed by a day of singles matches. In 2010, victorious USA captain Noreen Mohler also utilized 10 combos; the fewest was Pat Cornett’s six in 2012 when the Americans fell at Nairn.

While three Americans saw action in each session – Kristen Gillman, Jennifer Kupcho and Lilia Vu – the only two repeat pairings came in foursomes: Gillman and her University of Alabama teammate, Lauren Stephenson, and Vu and Kupcho.

The approach of the Americans at Quaker Ridge – seven collegians plus 15-year-old Lucy Li – contrasted with that of Great Britain & Ireland. One of the visitors’ pairings (Sophie Lamb-Olivia Mehaffey) were a part of each session, the first to do so since Stephanie Meadow and Georgia Hall were a mainstay for GB&I in 2014.

“I think all the girls get on really well,” Jennifer Kupcho said earlier this week. “We’ve come out of our different colleges, and I think that helps a lot to bring different personalities. We don't have any drama, and we all just want to do the best that we can.”

Instead of histrionics, the team is making history.

In addition to their much higher spots in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™ – from from No. 1 (Lilia Vu) to No. 22 (Mariel Galdiano), compared to No. 16 (Mehaffey) to 204 (Shannon McWilliam) for GB&I – the Americans have much more experience in the game’s biggest competitions. This year’s USA golfers have competed in a combined 28 majors, compared to four for GB&I. Every American has played at least two majors, with Gillman and Andrea Lee already veterans of five apiece. Six GB&I team members have no majors on their résumés.

“There’s nothing like major-championship pressure and experience,” said Alabama women’ golf coach Mic Potter, who is attending the Curtis Cup and supporting his two players. “On paper, I thought we had a pretty weighted advantage.”

Most members of the USA Team are quite familiar with each other, having grown up competing against each other through the junior ranks. “We have all known each other for a long time,” said Stephenson. “It definitely makes it better.

"We all have a lot of experience. Jennifer [Kupcho] just won individual nationals [at the NCAAs] and we finished runner-up in the team [competition], so I think from 1 to 8 we have a ton of experience and are confident in these types of situations.”

According to Potter, the match-play experience that the college golfers have from recent NCAA Championships was important. “It’s easy to look at match play and think, ‘I can make a big score and just lose the hole,’” said Potter. “But losing a hole is pretty critical against good players. I think they probably know you’ve got to be on top of it all the time.”

Even if the older Americans hadn’t known Li until last December’s informal practice session at Shoal Creek, they had certainly heard of the Northern Californian since she made headlines in 2014 by qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open at the record age of 11.

Derby Grimes said she felt good about varying combinations after trying a number of pairings during a pre-Match practice session last month at Quaker Ridge as well as after the team arrived at the club for this week’s competition.

“Just the mixing and matching of players, really mixing them up,” Derby Grimes said. “There was a lot of positive feedback from that.”

Added Kupcho: “We kind of figured for four-ball we could be paired with everyone, so we kind of figured it would be different. We all have our own styles of play, but we get along really well. We all can play just as well as anyone else. We can kind of pair with anyone.”

Lee and Li hadn’t practiced extensively as a duo – just one four-ball round this week – but their camaraderie was evident during their 3-and-2 Saturday Foursomes victory.

“We had a lot of fun out there,” said Lee, an All-American at Stanford University this past season. “We got our handshake down. We were laughing and joking around, keeping each other really light and positive on the golf course.”

The joy was evident by USGA Executive Committee member Martha Lang, who played in the 1992 Curtis Cup and captained the USA Team in 1996.

“When you’re having fun and winning, that’s nice,” said Lang, the 1988 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion. “Virginia’s done a great job. She’s mixed and matched, and I think that’s interesting. I have a feeling she has a plan on how to mix and match. She’s been watching them play and knows their games. She’s done a great job finding the right chemistry. Traditionally, it seems the Americans have kind of had their groups and stayed with them. GB&I seems to float them in and out. Virginia has really done that more so than other U.S. captains. I think it’s been great.”

Admiring the job that Derby Grimes, a former Auburn golfer and coach, has done with the USA Team, Potter was willing to overlook the Americans’ uniform hues on Saturday, which looked an awful like the navy blue and burnt orange color scheme of her alma mater.

“That’s OK. We’ll allow that,” said Potter, wearing his crimson red colors. “Virginia’s got a great personality for this role. I’ve always admired her. She’s a real diplomat for the game.”

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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