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Nerves and national pride

The United States has never lost the PGA Cup on its home turf, but a visiting squad some say is Great Britain and Ireland's best ever has high hopes of making a long-awaited breakthrough in this transatlantic battle of nerves and national pride.

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USA Captain Jim Remy (l) and PGA of America President Allen Wronowski know that keeping the Llandudno Trophy will take a great effort. (Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

By Bob Denney, The PGA of America

SAN MARTIN, Calif. – Three flagpoles positioned just to the right of the first tee at CordeValle bear the flags of the United States, Great Britain and Ireland. They serve as a reminder that something unique, special is about to take place in this tranquil valley surrounded by the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The 25th PGA Cup, the “Ryder Cup for the club professional,” makes its second visit to California, Friday, Sept. 16 through Sunday, Sept. 18. Its importance to a pair of 10-member teams from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean is not softened by the aesthetic beauty of the countryside. The United States owns a 16-5-3 record in a competition that began in 1973, and has never been defeated on home soil.

“The PGA Cup has all the tension, all the excellent play and drama, but without 30,000 fans,” said PGA Honorary President Jim Remy of Ludlow, Vt., the USA Captain. “But I guarantee you that once the flags are raised, the national anthems played, the nerves come out on the first tee. The players do not know any differently. This becomes the Ryder Cup.”

CordeValle, which is the resort’s clever blend of Spanish into “Heart of the Valley,” is a challenging 7,252-yard, par-72 layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., and opened in 1999. It has hosted a PGA Tour event, the Frys.com Open in 2010, has entertained the past six years the finest collegiate players in the U.S. in the Gifford CordeValle Collegiate Championship; and in 2013 will be the site of the USGA Women’s Senior Amateur Championship.

“The fact that we have the PGA Cup here now makes us even more excited, considering how unique this event is,” said CordeValle Managing Director Alan Campey. “We want the course to be a test, but a fair test. We have been excited for two years now to get this competition underway. Our reputation and future image is how this course is seen by different audiences.”

Nobody on site this week has more experience in a PGA Cup than 60-year-old Russell Weir of Dunoon, Scotland, the Great Britain & Ireland Captain. He has competed in eight consecutive events between 1986 and 2000, and played a record 40 matches.

He also competed in seven Open Championships between 1975 and 1994, and won two PGA Professional Championships (1987, ’88). Last week, past European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie sent a message of encouragement to the Great Britain & Ireland Team.

“I was ecstatic to receive the letter from Colin wishing good luck to me and the team,” said Weir. “It was a marvelous gesture and gave us a big boost.”

Weir sends eight rookies and two veteran players against the United States, which last surrendered the Llandudno International Golf Trophy in 2005 in Ireland.

“I know the U.S. will be a strong side and hard to beat,” said Weir, “but so will our boys, too. We are delighted to be here. It’s a magnificent venue for the PGA Cup, a great match-play course. There are a lot of risk-reward holes, so many different shots to play that makes it wonderful for match play.”

Great Britain & Ireland was forced to make a late roster substitution a week ago when Matt Morris of England suffered a hip injury. His replacement is John Kennedy of Oxford, England, who had been defeated by fellow Cup member John Wells in a playoff in June at the Glenmuir PGA Professional Championship.

Remy said that he has not wasted time preparing, and has “structured practices” in place.

“Because we do not play foursomes (alternate shot) hardly at all in this country, we are placing players in foursomes today through Thursday to get a feel for this competition and have them be accustomed to their partners,” said Remy. “I told the team that Great Britain & Ireland is ready to play and will come at us hard. We have to focus from the start.”

CordeValle’s staff preparations, Campey said, have been to assist in the PGA Cup’s international theme of fellowship amidst the competition.

“I saw in Scotland (in the 2009 PGA Cup) a fierce competition, but the ultimate camaraderie after the match was played,” said Campey. “To tell you the truth, I wish I was one of them.”

The United States posted a convincing 17½ to 8½ victory in 2009 at The Carrick in Loch Lomond, Scotland, with veterans Mike Small of Champaign, Ill., Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga.; and Mark Sheftic of Blue Bell, Pa. returning to anchor the 2011 Team.

“I’ve not played well in this event, coming off a lot of responsibilities at work, but I want to get out and have a better week,” said Small, the three-time PGA Professional National Champion who owns a 4-9-2 record in three previous PGA Cup appearances. “It is a great event and I’m always honored to be a member of this team.”

Skinner, 51, the oldest member of the U.S. squad, said that his 2009 PGA Cup debut (when he finished 4-0-0), was “the highlight of my golf career.”

“We will have our hands full with GB&I,” said Skinner. “In match play, you never know what will happen. You have to expect your opponent will play exceptionally well. You cannot let up.”

Great Britain & Ireland’s veterans include reigning National Champion Craig Goodfellow and Simon Edwards, both of Cumbria, England. Goodfellow, 36, a teaching professional at Carlisle Driving Range in Cumbria, rewrote the record book this summer by becoming the only player to win a PGA Assistants (2001) and a Glenmuir PGA Professional Championship. He also was part of a 2007 GB&I Team that nearly upset the U.S. at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga.

“I’m really excited to have the chance to compete again in America; the last time I played (2007 in Greensboro, Ga.) was so close, just one match would have swung it our way,” says Goodfellow. “Once you’ve played one, you know how good it is and you want that experience again. It was so close last time (a 13½ to 12½ defeat in 2007), right down to the wire and I felt robbed at the end.”

Edwards, 40, is the PGA head professional at Windermere Golf Club in Cumbria, and a member of the victorious GB&I Team in 2005 at The K Club’s Smurfit Course in Straffan, Ireland. In fact, half of this year’s GB&I unit live in northern England.

“It’s a dream come true to play on a PGA Cup Team,” says Sheftic, a PGA teaching professional at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., who missed out on a PGA Championship berth but found consolation by winning the Pennsylvania State Open on Aug. 10. “To play for your country is something hard to describe, but easily the pinnacle of my club professional career. We played hard for Captain Brian Whitcomb in 2009 and we will play hard for Captain Jim Remy this time.”

CordeValle’s PGA Director of Golf, Michael Marion, echoes a player’s view of what lies ahead in managing one’s way around the course.

“I think every player who plays here appreciates the shot value they will have on this course,” said Marion. “Any good struck shots are rewarded. This is what you would call a golf purist’s course. What you see is what you get. There are no tricks here. I have seen Robert Trent Jones Jr. courses many times, and I worked at Medinah and truly believe that Mr. Jones did his finest fairway bunkering here. You are challenged from the first shot.”

If you want match-play drama, CordeValle PGA Head Professional Nick Bailey suggests the 425-yard, par-4 ninth or the 480-yard, par-5 15th may earn their way into the spotlight at the PGA Cup.

“The ninth will be a ‘turning point-in-the-match hole’ at the turn with the placement of the drive being so important to making a good score and putting the pressure on your opponent,” says Bailey. “At 15, this short par-5 is a strong chance for eagle or birdie. I think that it will be a pivotal point in a few of the matches throughout the week.”

The United States may own a 16-5-3 advantage in the PGA Cup, yet Skinner is not about to look to history as his guide.

Rounding out the U.S. Team, which was determined Aug. 15, at the 93rd PGA Championship in Atlanta Athletic Club, are seven talented rookies: reigning PGA Professional National Champion David Hutsell of Baltimore, Md.; co-national runners-up Faber Jamerson of Appomattox, Va., and Scott Erdmann of Tigard, Ore., Danny Balin of Greenwich, Conn.; Rob McClellan of Butler, Pa.; Brad Lardon of College Station, Texas, and Marty Jertson of Phoenix, Ariz.

Rounding out Great Britain & Ireland’s Team are: Stuart Little of Gloucester, England; Gary Brown of North Yorkshire, England; Robert Giles of County Down, Ireland; Christopher Gill of Devon, England; John Kennedy of Oxford, England; Ireland’s David Mortimer of County Galway, a two-time Irish PGA Champion; David Shacklady of Lancashire, England, who helped his country win the PGAs of Europe International crown last year; and John Wells of East Riding of Yorkshire, England, who survived an eight-hole playoff at The Belfry last June to secure the final berth on this year’s team.