PGA Cup there for the taking as two talented teams gather at Slaley Hall

Slaley Hall
The Professional Golfers Association
Slaley Hall's Hunting Course in Northern England serves as host as Great Britain & Ireland bids to end U.S. dominance in the 26th PGA Cup.
By
Bob Denney
The PGA of America

Series: PGA

The PGA Cup, structured after the format of the Ryder Cup, features the top PGA club professionals from the United States and Great Britain & Ireland. The 26th edition of the event will be conducted Sept. 20–22 at Slaley Hall, Northumberland, England. 

Reigning PGA Professional National Champion Rod Perry has never played in a PGA Cup, nor has his British counterpart, Dan Greenwood. But the two national champions, each riding a high since their respective triumphs this past June on opposite sides of the Atlantic, share a common denominator.

2013 PGA CUP

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The term "rookie" means virtually nothing when it comes to competing in a PGA Cup, the Ryder Cup for the PGA club professional. The 26th PGA Cup commences Sept. 20-22, at Slaley Hall's Hunting Course in Northumberland, England. 

Great Britain & Ireland will have a full 10-member roster of rookies this year – a record since the competition began in 1973. The U.S. will have six first-time competitors in the duel for the Llandudno International Golf Trophy.

Having the edge in experience in international match-play events may feel like an ace in a player's pocket. However, that old standard may be shrinking based upon the depth of talent around the world.

"I don't think you will find any ghosts in a rookie's closet," said Perry, the PGA head professional at Crane Lakes Golf & Country Club in Port Orange, Fla., and the 2012 PGA Professional Player of the Year. "There are no negatives to draw upon. Everyone is starting fresh, and I believe everyone on both sides are concentrating on just playing golf."

The Great Britain & Ireland quest to win back the Llandudno Trophy, and a dent in a U.S. overall record of 17-5-3, featured a new qualification system. The GB&I Team is comprised of the top six point scorers from the past two Glenmuir PGA Professional Championships, the top three finishers at the Titleist PGA Playoffs and a captain's pick.

Since the PGA Cup began in 1973, the U.S. is 7-4-1 while competing overseas, last falling 15-11 in 2005 at The K Club in County Kildare, Ireland.

This is the 40th anniversary of the biennial competition, which inspired The Professional Golfers' Association to invite back all GB&I Captains and competitors for a reunion at Slaley Hall. Last June, the GB&I qualifiers were given a free preview of their PGA Cup battleground. The Glenmuir PGA Professional Championship was conducted on the Hunting Course, and Greenwood waltzed home with an eight-stroke victory.

"It was special to play on the course where you will be representing your country, and it's a great honor to play in the PGA Cup," said Greenwood, the head professional at Forest Pines Golf Club in Lincolnshire, England. "However, the weather in England in September could be almost anything. It was quite windy and chilly all week in June at our national Championship. The Hunting Course is a good test, and the greens are the difference. There's good slopes on all of them."

The U.S. Team features three-time PGA Professional National Champion Mike Small of Champaign, Ill., who makes his fifth PGA Cup appearance. He competed in 2005, '07, '09 and '11. Mark Sheftic of Blue Bell, Pa., returns for a third consecutive PGA Cup, having been a member of two consecutive victories in 2009 and 2011. Chip Sullivan of Troutville, Va., who last played in 2007, is back on the team after earning a Cup berth with Sheftic via a playoff in June in Sunriver, Ore.

The balance of the team includes Matt Dobyns of Glen Head, N.Y., the 2012 National Champion; National Championship runner-up Ryan Polzin of Houston, Texas; Jeff Sorenson of Blaine, Minn., Kelly Mitchum of Southern Pines, N.C.; JC Anderson of St. Louis and 2004 National Champion Bob Sowards of Dublin, Ohio.

United States Captain Allen Wronowski, the PGA Honorary President from Bel Air, Md., said that he also would never pre-judge any "rookie."

"The players on both teams have played a ton of golf," said Wronowski. "They are not rookies to competition. The challenge for any captain is to build a team. We will try to get our players acclimated to the new surroundings as soon as they get off the plane. When I went online to study Slaley Hall, and the Hunting Course, I found both look absolutely spectacular. It should be a heck of a test of golf."

Wronowski reviewed his roster, calling it "an outstanding mix of talent and veteran experience. I have been fortunate to be in the Team Room at a Ryder Cup and a PGA Cup, and the key is to have everyone feel comfortable with one another," said Wronowski. "You have to listen to the players and feel who they are comfortable playing with, and then go from there. I have consulted a few captains of the past Ryder Cups and our own Past PGA Presidents for advice.

"The PGA Cup is a rare opportunity to represent the red, white and blue. You rarely have such an opportunity in a lifetime."

Polzin, whose wife, K.D., gave birth to a baby boy a week before the PGA Championship, has a share of match-play experience in the past two Joe Black Cups, named after the PGA Past President and pits the Southern Texas vs. Northern Texas PGA Sections in a Ryder Cup-style competition.

"Every bit of experience at match play helps," said Polzin. "It was great to have played two rounds in the PNC with Mike Small. I also have ties with Matt Dobyns, since he was in a rival high school in Austin and my high school, San Antonio Clark, faced his school in regional and state competition. We were two years apart in school, and his school was a power. Matt's a good friend from high school is friends with my best friend, PGA Professional Randy Jones. It is a small world, right?"

Small, the men's head golf coach at the University of Illinois, will make his fifth PGA Cup appearance.

"It is for your country and it is playing for your teammates, but I'm on the other side of a fence, I'm a player now for a captain and a coach, so I get to see the other side," said Small. "It helps my coaching, it really does, to see how they talk to us, the team atmosphere, the pressure you feel, the preparation. So, it's really helped my coaching and I'm looking forward to that experience. Playing for your country is a neat deal." 

On the opposite side of the Atlantic, Greenwood said that he has sought advice from several PGA Cup veterans. "I know Stephen Bennett from Grimsby who has been in it (1998), and he's said what a fantastic experience it was," said Greenwood, the head professional at Forest Pines Golf Club in Lincolnshire, England. "It's a step into the unknown as I've never really done anything like that. I never did team amateur golf so it will be a new experience."

Russell Weir of Dunoon, Scotland, whose three-decade competitive run spans three decades and 40 overall matches, returns for the second straight PGA Cup as captain.

"Having watched that Championship, I feel that we have a very strong team," said Weir. "I was impressed how well that they handled the difficult playing conditions last June. That ability to handle adversity and having played the course gives them an advantage. They know where the difficult places are on the course. However, the Americans also will bring an outstanding team and they will find their own way to get adjusted to the course."

The U.S. posted a second consecutive 17 1/2 to 8 1/2 victory in 2011, a disappointment that Weir said helped him become a better captain.

"I learned a lot, and I believe that I can handle the job much better now," said Weir. "There is a lot involved in serving as captain, including timing your picks for the next session of matches. I have got a good assessment of the talent that we have on the team. I also have the benefit of a fine vice captain in Jon Bevan, who is very experienced and has already been a big help to me."

Bevan might have the PGA Cup in his DNA, if you consider his place of employment at Rhos-on-Sea, just two miles east of the Welsh seaport of Llandudno – namesake for the PGA Cup trophy.

Bevan was a member of the 2007 and '09 GB&I Teams, posting a 5-3-1 record. He has one goal. "My job is to lift any burdens from Russell's shoulders, and do all that we can to help us win," said Bevan. "I am excited about the players we have, and we could not hope for a better 10. I also know how good the American Team will be, and have faced some of the players before."

The Hunting Course is a parkland layout that Bevan said bears a strong resemblance to the Oconee Course in Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., site of the 2007 thriller where the U.S. escaped with a 13½ to 12½ victory.

Slaley Hall, which has hosted a combined 18 European and European Senior Tour events over the past 25 years, will set up the 7,063-yard, par-72 Hunting Course with its nines reversed. What was a rugged 6-7-8-9 stretch of holes will now become a 15-16-17-18 gauntlet to test the two teams.

"There are going to be a lot of fireworks on the front nine, and the final four holes will be great challenges," said Bevan. "There could be a lot of matches decided at the end."

Slaley Hall Regional Director of Golf Keith Pickard of Dunfermline, Scotland, said that the American Team will feel like it is back in the States on the Dave Thomas-designed layout, which opened in 1993.

"It is an easy-to-walk course, and the greens are fairly big," said Pickard. "Local knowledge is a good thing. The 15th hole for the PGA Cup (par 3, 198 yards) is over water to a green where the pin is typically tucked away; the 16th (par 4, 418 yards) is uphill, tree-lined and with a severely undulating green. Proper club selection is a must.

"As the matches reach the 17th (par 4, 423 yards), you will find a downhill, sharp dogleg right requiring a long iron or hybrid. The 18th hole (par 4, 444 yards) requires a driver downhill and then an slightly uphill approach requiring a hybrid or long iron to a well-guarded green. 

"Overall, I think that the course held up very well during the Glenmuir PGA Championship. That week, with the wind, it was a proper brute for the guys." 

The Hunting Course, designed in 1993 by the late Ryder Cup member Dave Thomas, was named after Samuel Hunting, the original owner of Slaley Hall. Since 1996, it has hosted a combined 15 European Tour and European Senior Tour events.

Perry, who was one of eight members of the U.S. Team to compete in the 95th PGA Championship, said that he knew that he was in for something special when his team uniform arrived. "I opened up the box and there was a pair of shoes with a U.S. flag on the side," Perry said. "That told me something."

The Great Britain & Ireland Team is led by Glenmuir PGA Professional National Champion Dan Greenwood of Lincolnshire, England, who won by an eight-stroke margin at the Hunting Course. He is joined by Gareth Wright, a PGA teaching professional from Peeblesshire, Scotland, who tied for 71st last month at the Open Championship at Muirfield. The remainder of the team features Benn Barham of Kent, England; Jon Barnes of Hampshire, England; Nick Brennan of Wiltshire, England; David Callaway of Surrey, England; Graham Fox of Glasgow, Scotland; Scott Henderson of Aberdeen, Scotland; Richard Wallis of Kent, England; and Greig Hutcheon of Kincardineshire, Scotland.

Callaway, the National Championship runner-up, didn't hide his excitement about making the PGA Cup Team.

"It's fantastic to be in the PGA Cup. I would have bitten someone's arm off if they'd said at the start of the week I'd finish second and be in the PGA Cup," said Callaway. "It was a massive goal to be there at some point in my career and I'm chuffed to be there and I can't wait to be back here in September."

Wright, 31, earned a PGA Cup berth via the Titleist PGA Playoffs. He also made the cut in the Open Championship, tying for 71st at Muirfield. Wright was the 2012 British Club Professional Champion.

Former Tour professional Barham took third place, playing through the pain of a back spasm. Other GB&I qualifiers via the championship were Fox, Brennan and Barnes. Hutcheon, past winner of the PGA Playoffs and the top PGA player in July's BMW PGA Championship, was a Captain's pick. Completing the team, via the PGA Playoffs were Wallis and Henderson.

"We are all looking forward to this PGA Cup," said Weir. "I feel that we will see a great match."