Mary McKenna, captain of the GB and Ireland side for the forthcoming Curtis Cup in Boston, is a great one for counting her blessings. Two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of America’s 13-7 win in the Curtis Cup at St Andrews, this eight-time Irish champion pointed to how the Americans averaged out at two-years older than the GB and Ireland contingent. “If our players hang around, things could be very different in Boston in 2010,” she suggested.
The trouble is that the girls have not hung around. With the exception of Sally Watson, who is in her first year at Stanford, they have all turned professional. Jodi Ewart, described by McKenna as “top-drawer material,” was the latest defector, making the switch in early February.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says McKenna, who played in nine Curtis Cups, “We’ve still got a lot of talented young players.” She mentioned Ireland’s Danielle McVeigh and the 15-year-old Maguire twins as three who would be on the team if it were chosen today.
Yet, confident though McKenna is that these players could form the bones of a team that might just create an upset, she is hardly about to pretend that her side is balanced. When GB and Ireland were winning the match, which they did on a regular basis between 1986 and 1996, the teams were an appropriate mix of youth and experience.
When GB and Ireland resumed losing in 1998 – it would be the first of what is now a run of six successive losses – critics started doing what they used to do in rounding on the captain and/or the selectors. For the moment, though, the weakness would seem to be with the match itself and how it is perceived in the modern era.
The newspaper and TV world has a lot to do with the way the Curtis Cup no longer has the same ring to it as it did in the past. In McKenna’s day, details of Walker and Curtis Cups would be plastered all over the papers and juniors were reared on tales of past matches.
“My generation received masses of coverage,” says McKenna. “Often, it would be half a page or more for winning an Irish championship. The papers made my generation, and youngsters could see that the top of the amateur game was a glamorous place to be.
“Today,” she continued, “everything’s about football or, if it is about golf, it’s about Tiger and what’s going on in his life.”
The 2008 Curtis Cup bucked the trend because it was at St. Andrews and that, in itself, was enough to make it a bit special. Yet even then the writers had a fight on their hands.
On the first day’s play, this correspondent, who was at the time writing for one of the national papers, was asked for a frugal 200 words. A discussion ensued and the number of words was doubled. That, though, was only a short-term triumph. From that point the writing was less in the papers than on the wall.
Such has been the decline in interest that it is hardly surprising that the top amateurs are in a hurry to reach the professional ranks as quickly as possible – and no matter that they are woefully short on experience.
What makes McKenna more than a tad exasperated is that the four home unions are not doing enough to discourage the players’ leap into the virtual unknown. “In Ireland,” she says, “the girl who is making the switch is given 10,000 Euros to get her started.”
She believes the four home unions need to talk, while she would not be surprised if the Americans wanted to join in, what Global Golf Post recently reporting that 15-year-old Alexis Thompson has plans to turn professional after just the one Curtis Cup.
One item McKenna would like to see on the agenda is the extent to which so many girls who turn professional very quickly find themselves out of their depth and out of money. Already, there is one from the ranks of the 2008 GB and Ireland Curtis Cup side who, having made the switch in ’08, is already considering a change of direction. Shona Malcolm, the CEO of the LGU, recently reported that she had as many as eight letters on her desk from players calling for the return of their amateur status.
Another item that could do with a bit of airing is the length of the Curtis Cup. Though McKenna, initially, was not happy at the idea of it becoming the three-day occasion it was at St Andrews – “I’m a great one for tradition and keeping things as they are” – she has since changed her mind. She particularly likes the fact that all eight of the players who work their guts out to make the side can be sure of getting a game.
Others worry that the weaker side will always be more exposed in the stretched format, while it is an interesting point that Walker Cup officials, after keeping more than half an eye on things at St Andrews, were not moved to add an extra day to their contest.
A win for GB and Ireland in Boston could keep the women’s contest interesting for the moment.
What it cannot do, though, is to make any difference to the bigger picture.
This correspondent’s idea to save the Curtis Cup? Turn it into a match for Under 18s.