From the Golf Journal Archives - The Curtis Cup – a Preliminary Skirmish

Jun 04, 2010

A group of American women golfers accepted a challenge to play a team match in Britain, in 1930, that turned out to be a preliminary to the Curtis Cup.

By Maureen Orcutt

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1986 issue of Golf Journal.)

WITH THE 24th Curtis Cup Match coming up next month at the Prairie Dunes Country Club, in Hutchinson, Kansas, I’ve been thinking back to the beginning of that series and the matches some of us played so long ago. While the first Match was played in 1932, there had been quite a bit of talk throughout the early years of American golf about teams of women amateurs from the United States competing against a team from Great Britain and Ireland in a series of matches. A few of our prominent women did journey to England and played in an international contest in 1905, and although the Americans were soundly trounced, talk continued during the period from 1924 through 1928, with the Curtis sisters – Harriot and Margaret – donating a cup for this international match.

It was in 1930 that Glenna Collett invited a group of interested women golfers to play an international match against a strong group from Great Britain, led by Molly Gourlay, one of the best women golfers Britain ever produced. All of us were thrilled to have been invited, and so it was indeed a very enthusiastic group that sailed aboard the HMS Berengaria on Tuesday, April 22, 1930. Besides Glenna, the American team was made up of Helen Hicks, Virginia Van Wie, Peggy Wattles, Mrs. Opal S. Hill, Louise Fordyce, Mrs. Lee Mida, Edith Quier, Mrs. Hazel Martelle, Bernice Wall, Mrs. Stewart Hanley, Mrs. Sylva Federman, Rosalie Knapp, Marian Bennett, and Virginia Holzderber.

I was a member of the team, too, but I sailed on the Olympic two days earlier, since I was reporting the matches for the New York World and for the North American Newspaper Alliance, a wire service, and I wanted to be there before the rest of the team arrived.

Before leaving New York, the players were entertained at the Knollwood Country Club, in White Plains, a few miles northeast of New York City, where they had lunch and played a preliminary foursomes match. That was the last opportunity for practice before the team reached England.

HEAVY SEAS were running along the North Atlantic route, causing a rough passage that was scheduled for five days but took seven. While the ship tossed and heaved, the players enjoyed themselves as much as they could, playing shuffleboard, walking for miles around the decks, and reading and sleeping. On the evening before the landing, the team was honored at a shipboard dinner.

Meantime, before our team had landed, Molly Gourlay had been criticized heavily – through anonymous letters – about the makeup of her team. The letter-writers claimed she had left off players who should have been included. Molly, though, felt she knew what she was doing. She said she chose the players she believed could give Glenna’s team a good game. “For international matches,” she said, “the first four or five players select themselves, and therefore, since there are probably 20 candidates for the remaining places, there is bound to be criticism."

Finally arriving at Southampton on Monday, the 28th of April, after a long and trying journey, and with only a day and a half to practice before the match, our girls boarded a train for the ride to Sunningdale, west of London, where the match was to be played. The train normally took passengers directly from Southampton to Waterloo Station, in London, but it made a special stop at Woking to let the players off closer to the golf course. They had time to play 12 holes that night before darkness set in.

Because the team arrived so late, we missed a welcoming reception that had been planned by Miss M. M. MacFarlane, the secretary of the Ladies Golf Union, but both teams dined that evening at the Savoy, which was headquarters during the match. Adding a further nice touch, private cars were put at our disposal.

The matches opened on a bright spring day. Looking back through my clippings, I see that I wrote:

“The Sunningdale course was in beautiful condition. It is one of the finest I’ve seen in a long time. Carpeted with fine green turf, it makes playing all shots a pleasure. With its fairways bordered by thousands of silver birch trees and yellow gorse bushes, its scenic beauty is not easy to surpass.

“The holes are all interesting and well trapped, and long carries are necessary for low scoring. Holding the greens with high pitches in strong winds was a great problem, but it was the safest shot to the slippery greens at Sunningdale, one of the few inland courses that puts a high premium on accurate shots and putting.”

IT WAS TOO bad that our team was delayed in arriving. Besides the 12 holes the first day, they had time for only one full round the following afternoon, and the lack of practice showed on the putting greens. We split the foursomes matches, each side winning two, with one match halved, but the British team won six of the singles matches to our four, and they won by 8½ to 6½.

The best match of the day was between Glenna and Molly, the two captains. Molly was two down after 11 holes, but she rolled in a 20-foot putt to birdie the 13th, birdied the 14th to pull even, and then holed another long putt to save her par on the 16th. They both shot 75 in high winds, and Molly won the match, 1 up.

That was the second loss for Glenna. Molly had teamed with Enid Wilson and won their foursomes by 4 and 3 over Glenna and Marian Bennett. I was playing well; teamed with Mrs. H. A. Martelle, we won our foursomes by 7 and 6 over Dorothy Pearson and Phyllis Lobbett, and then I won my singles by 4 and 3 over Mrs. J. B. Watson.

The informal match over, we all went to Formby, on the west coast of England, to play in the British Ladies Amateur. One by one our girls lost, even Glenna, who went all the way to the final match. Once again the highlight of the championship turned out to be the battle between Molly and Glenna, but this time Glenna had her revenge in a match that was tight from the very first hole. Neither woman was particularly sharp on the greens, but neither one gave anything away. On and on the match went, with neither Miss Gourlay nor Miss Collett opening any kind of a lead. Finally, on the 21st hole, Molly ran into trouble and had to concede the match.

Glenna had won our women’s championship four times by then (eventually she won six), and since she had reached the final of the 1929 British championship, where she lost to Joyce Wethered, she was expected to defeat 19-year-old Diana Fishwick, her opponent in the final, but once again she had no putting touch and lost, 4 and 3.

Just before we had sailed from New York, Glenna had received a cable from Mlle. L. Vagliano, the vice-president of the French Women’s Golf Federation, asking if the American team would play a match against the French. Naturally she agreed, and after Formby, we went over to St. Cloud, near Paris.

When Sylva Federman heard we were going to France, she thought it would be a good idea to learn some French. She studied hard, and when we drove to the golf club for the first time, she said to our driver, “Nous serons fini a quatre heures; revenez pour nous la, s'il vous plait.” (“We’ll be finished here about 4 o’clock. Please come back for us then.”)

The driver answered, “Very well, Madame. I’ll be back at 4 o’clock,” in perfect English. Sylva was terribly disappointed.

THAT TRIP was the prelude to the Curtis Cup Matches. In February of 1931, the LGU agreed to regular matches to begin the next year, and the United States Golf Association assumed responsibility for the American team. Margaret and Harriot Curtis had donated a trophy for an international match in 1927, and nothing had come of it, but now the USGA wanted to accept it for the series with Great Britain and Ireland. The LGU finally agreed in November of 1932, two months after the first match ended.

The first formal match was played at the Wentworth Golf Club, another London club. The American team was made up of six players, and five of us who made the trip to England in 1930 – myself and Glenna Collett Vare (she had married since the 1930 Match), Opal Hill, Helen Hicks, and Virginia Van Wie – were chosen. Mrs. L. D. Cheney was the only team member who had not gone over two years earlier, and so most of us had some experience with the British weather and courses.

Once again I sailed in advance of the team because I was still reporting for the World. This time the passage was smooth and the team arrived on schedule. When all of us got together, we were taken to a number of courses around London to play our practice rounds.

It was during this time that I met and saw the great Joyce Wethered for the first time. Joyce and Cecil Leitch – another of England’s famous women golfers – played a match against Helen Hicks and me. While both Helen and I could keep up with Joyce’s drives, we were both amazed at the distance she got with the brassie (the number 2 wood). They beat us, 1 up.

Marion Hollins was captain of our team, and she kept at us to practice. We played at Sandy Lodge and Camerley Heath, as well as Sunningdale again. Finally the time had come for us to tackle Wentworth.

WHEN THE PAIRINGS were announced the evening before the opening match, the crowd gasped in pleasure to hear that Glenna and Opal were paired against Joyce and Wanda Morgan. Perhaps the biggest crowd that ever saw a women’s golf match in Britain turned out the next morning, principally because of that match. As many as 15,000 people swarmed over the golf course, interrupting play several times.

We hadn’t done very well in the foursomes matches two years earlier, but this time we surprised the British galleries. Joyce and Wanda were having a terrible time on the greens, Wanda constantly leaving Joyce four and five feet from the hole and Joyce not able to hole the short putts, and Glenna and Opal won by one hole. Virginia and Helen played the 17 holes of their match in 68 and beat Enid Wilson and Mrs. J. B. Watson by 2 and 1, and Mrs. Cheney and I won our match from Doris Park (she was the daughter of Willie Park, Jr.) and Molly Gourlay by one hole, closing them out with a 6 on the home hole against their 7.

Our winning all three foursomes surprised the British galleries; alternate shots was supposed to be a traditional British game that we didn’t understand, and the critics expected them to excel.

That first match was played in one day, three foursomes in the morning and the six singles in the afternoon. We went into the singles leading by 3 to 0, and we needed every one of those points to hold off the British women in the afternoon, because only Virginia Van Wie and Mrs. Cheney were able to win their matches. Virginia was 3 down after eight holes, but she rallied and defeated Wanda Morgan in a close 2-and-l match, and Mrs. Cheney won from Elsie Corlett by 4 and 3. Mrs. Hill halved Miss Gourlay, but all the rest of us lost. Joyce putted better in the afternoon and Glenna was unlucky with some of her shots that found the bunkers and Joyce won by 6 and 4, I lost to Diana Fishwick by 4 and 3, and Enid Wilson beat Helen Hicks by 2 and 1 when Helen missed some makeable putts on the way home.

EVEN THOUGH the British gals had won three of the six singles matches, it wasn’t enough. The United States won that first Curtis Cup Match, 5½ to 3½. It was quite exciting, of course, and we all became great friends. As a matter of fact, after the Curtis Cup Match, eight of us, a mixture of American and British Curtis Cuppers, combined to play a match against a group of men amateurs at the Royal Lytham and St. Annes course, which, like Formby, is on the west coast of England. The men gave us each four strokes, and we beat them.

While I don’t anticipate that this year’s teams will challenge a group of men amateurs, as we did back in 1932, they will surely make just as many lasting friends.

The crowd during the first Curtis Cup Match became unruly at times and interrupted play. (USGA Museum)

The 1932 Curtis Cup Team: (seated, left to right) Glenna Collett Vare, Marion Hollins (Team Captain), Maureen Orcutt. (Standing, left to right) Mrs. L.D. Cheney, Mrs. Opal S. Hill, Mrs. Harley G. Higbie, Virginia Van Wie, Helen Hicks. (USGA Museum)

Mrs. Glenna Collett Vare (left) of the United States, and Molly Gourlay, of Great Britain and Ireland, showed the friendship that has been a lasting legacy of the competition. (USGA Museum)