AUSTIN, Texas — For the first time in PGA Cup history, the United States isn’t a favorite on its home turf. Visiting Great Britain & Ireland has won two consecutive meetings in the premier international showcase for PGA Professionals and has the talent for Texas-size expectations.
The 29th PGA Cup, which opens Friday and concludes Sunday at Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa, is the event’s debut in Texas. The Fazio Foothills Course is the centerpiece for the first international team match-play event to be conducted in Austin.
The United States and Great Britain & Ireland match respective 10-member teams in the “Ryder Cup for the PGA Club Professional.” The U.S. holds a 17-7-4 overall record in the biennial event, but is facing an uphill battle to reclaim the Llandudno International Trophy.
To boost the Americans’ spirits, 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Ben Crenshaw visited the team Monday night. The 67-year-old Austin native appeared nearly 20 years to the day when he pointed his right index finger and issued his sendoff message to media at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
“I have a good feeling about this; that’s all I’m going to tell ya’, “ said Crenshaw, as his team was grounded in a four-point Saturday night deficit. The U.S. rallied on Sunday for a 14½ to 13½ triumph.
For PGA Cup Captain Derek Sprague, the PGA General Manager at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, having Crenshaw on site was uplifting.
“It was great that Ben gave us his time to be here,” said Sprague, who served as PGA President from 2014-16. “Ben obviously understands team golf competition and what the Ryder Cup meant to him. Hopefully, I won’t have to use his words on Saturday night. But I will, if I must.
“I have my own little thought about ‘fate.’ We have two Bens on our team (Ben Cook of Caledonia, Michigan and Ben Kern of Round Rock, Texas). I think that might be magical for us.”
Sprague said his tour of Fazio Foothills was enough proof what it will take for his team to be successful this weekend.
“We will spend a lot of time on the greens, which are very small here,” said Sprague. “Putting and our work around the greens will be the difference for us.
“We have six rookies on our team and you’re going to have a couple stars coming out of that group. They may be a little naïve with the weight of team and country on their shoulders. I will condition and encourage them to play their own game. We need those veterans that will be the rocks for those whom they gravitate to and want to join for practice.
GB&I flipped the momentum in the PGA Cup in 2015, registering its first road win in a 13½ to 12½ nail-biter at CordeValle in San Martin, California. From there, GB&I cruised to a 16-10 victory in 2017 at Foxhills Resort in England.
Great Britain & Ireland Captain Cameron Clark has never tasted defeat in the PGA Cup. He was a player in 2015 when his team celebrated its historic road triumph, and was a vice captain in 2017.
Clark brings six veterans, including two returnees from 2017 – Robert Coles of Romford, Essex, England, who finished 4-1-0; along with Matthew Cort of Rothley, Leicestershire, England (2-2-0). Coles finished tied for 69th last week in the BMW PGA Championship, a marquee event on the European Tour.
They are joined by David Dixon of Bridgwater, England; Jason Levermore of Ipswich, England; Richard Wallis of Whitstable, Kent, England; and Alex Wrigley of Hartlepool, England. Dixon, Levermore and Wrigley competed in 2015 and Wallis in 2013. Adding to the confidence meter for GB&I are a pair of Scottish rookies. Alastair Forsyth of Glasgow breezed to an 11-shot victory in the PGA Professional Championship in June. Paul O’Hara of Holytown, who was a three-time Walker Cup Team member and the 2017 PGA Professional Champion. Rounding out the GB&I roster are English rookies Jordan Godwin of Kent and Craig Lee of Stirling, who has 10 top-10 performances on the European Tour (2008, ’12-16).
“I don’t want to take anything away from the guys who played in 2015 and 2017, but this is one of the strongest teams we’ve ever produced,” said Clark.
Clark said his team has not flinched from the favorite’s role.
“The expectations from The PGA and from the country are big, so it comes with its own pressures in itself,” he said, “but these guys are very capable of handling it and we’re very confident heading to America.”
Clark, along with two of his vice captains, played the Fazio Foothills Course last fall. “It’s a beautiful facility,” said Clark. “The golf course will be very fair, and I don’t feel the course will favor either side. It is a great match-play golf course.”
Sprague understands the task ahead in determining pairings to identify those players with the intangible “right chemistry.” Sprague will count on leadership from four veterans – Danny Balin of Irvington, New York; 2016 PGA Professional Champion Rich Berberian Jr. of Hooksett, New Hampshire; Marty Jertson of Phoenix, Arizona; and defending Senior PGA Professional Champion Bob Sowards of Dublin, Ohio. Balin and Jertson were teammates in 2011; while Berberian went 3-2-0 in 2017 and Sowards is 7-4-2 in PGA Cup trips in 2005, ’13 and ’15.
“We have a very talented team,” said Sprague. “It’s a good mixture of players who have PGA Cup experience and those who have proven themselves on a big stage in the past. Our players have had the experience of playing in a PGA Championship, which will help in preparation against a strong team.”
Sowards will get to know Omni Barton Creek well over the next two weeks. He will defend his Senior PGA Professional title on the Fazio Foothills Course, Oct. 3-6.
“The last couple PGA Cups we have seen how strong the new system of bringing players to the event are from Great Britain & Ireland,” said Sowards, the PGA Director of Instruction at Kinsale Golf & Fitness Club in Powell, Ohio. “We come into this as an underdog. But I look forward to the challenge.”
The balance of the U.S. Team features reigning PGA Professional Champion Alex Beach of Stamford, Connecticut; Jason Caron of Oyster Bay, New York; Ben Cook of Caledonia, Michigan; Ben Kern of Round Rock, Texas, who lives 40 miles from Omni Barton Creek Resort; seven-time Iowa PGA Match Play Champion Sean McCarty of Solon, Iowa; and 2018 PGA Professional Champion Ryan Vermeer of Omaha, Nebraska.
Kern was the Low Club Professional in the 2018 PGA Championship and didn’t repeat as Texas State Open champion in August. However, his weekend rounds of 61 and 67 indicate his game is sharp.
Vermeer is the only member of the U.S. Team to have played at Omni Barton Creek Resort prior to this year. That opportunity came as a junior in the National Big I Insurance Tournament.
“I am extremely excited for the opportunity to represent the PGA of America and the flag in this year’s PGA Cup,” said Vermeer, the PGA Director of Instruction at Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, Nebraska. “Any time you can be a part of a team like this and play alongside these other great players it’s going to be a special experience.”
Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa underwent a $150 million renovation over the past year, and the Fazio Foothills had a separate $6 million refinement process, in improving irrigation, drainage and various bunkers.
“We are excited about the condition of the course and it is a good match play golf course. The front nine has great risk-reward holes,” said PGA Director of Operations Spencer Cody. “The golf course really gets interesting on the eighth hole. The players will see the course in the best shape it has ever been in.”