Nine holes and almost as many pounds sweated off
I had the bright idea on Friday of walking nine holes with one of the groups at the International Crown, and so I tagged along with the final match of the day between Americans Stacy Lewis and Paula Creamer and Spain’s Azahara Munoz and Carlota Ciganda at 10:35 a.m. ET.
The U.S. was in need of a victory after being skunked at Caves Valley Golf Club on Thursday, and Lewis and Creamer arrived at the first tee seemingly focused and ready. Creamer showed up with her iPod still banging away in her ear buds, and she acknowledged the crowd before putting her tee shot on the left side of the fairway.
Caves Valley is a hilly and long layout, so it’s not the easiest course to walk, and I took off with the other 30-plus people hiking around inside the ropes (yes, there are that many) with a bit of trepidation. After all, the last time I walked any amount of holes inside the ropes at an LPGA event was the 1998 Solheim Cup at Muirfield Village, and that was 16 years and about 20 pounds ago for me.
I tried walking nine holes while carrying my Auburn PING golf bag last fall in Colorado Springs, Colo., and I was so worn out that I was more focused on avoiding suffering a coronary than making putts. Luckily for me, temperatures topped out in the low 80s in Owings Mills, Md., although it felt closer to 90 a few times when the wind stopped.
As expected, the level of play was sky high, and I was impressed by the display of talent before me. When you watch the best players in the world do their thing, you’re reminded how simple the game can be when executed at a high level.
Here’s my nearly annoyingly detailed account of what transpired in the first nine holes.
All four players hit the fairway on the opening hole, and Munoz put the pressure on by sinking a 15-footer for birdie to a cheer of “Vamos” from Ciganda. That put Lewis, the No. 1 player in the world, on the spot with a 10-foot birdie try to halve the hole, but her attempt slid by and left the U.S. with a par.
After 1st hole
Score: Spain 3, USA 4 – Spain leads 1 Up
Writer’s status: Energized and excited
The fairways were spongy from consistent precipitation in the area from the week before, and everyone except Creamer found the one on the second hole off the tee. Munoz missed a 15-footer for birdie, and Lewis’ 20-footer to win the hole came up short left.
Lewis stayed on the green to try the putt a few more times before heading to the next hole, something that would become the norm for both teams throughout the round. Fans on the third hole gave a loud roar after a Lexi Thompson birdie, and Lewis and Creamer had to have enjoyed that sound.
After 2nd hole
Score: Spain 4, USA 4 – Spain leads 1 Up
Writer’s status: Good to go
The par-3 third hole is an interesting beast, with players hitting from an elevated tee to a skinny, kidney-shaped green that looks next to impossible to hit. Fronted by a trio of fried egg-looking bunkers and with the pin tucked on the left side, the third is a heck of a challenge.
Three of the four players had no trouble hitting the green, even through clangs of port-a potty doors slamming between the second and third holes, and then we all descended roughly 30 feet via dozens of spongy stairs through a row of shade trees. Munoz made a two-and-a-half-foot par putt, but Ciganda’s birdie try from around 18 feet slid by the hole on the right.
Lewis had a 15-footer for birdie to win the hole, but the downhill attempt stayed right and left both teams with pars. Lewis and Creamer lingered on the greens again, and I could tell Lewis was especially frustrated after going 0-for-3 on successive birdie attempts.
After 3rd hole
Score: Spain 3, USA 3 – Spain leads 1 Up
Writer’s status: Feeling the beginnings of a sweat coming on, but overall happy
All four players kept their drives in the “short stuff” on the par-5 fourth and then laid up to short approaches with their second shots. Munoz found the bunker with her fairway wood, however, and was conceded a par after knocking a chip with her fourth shot to within two feet of the cup.
Creamer stepped up with her third, zoning out the sounds of a dog barking and howling and a very loud bird chirping to stick it within three feet for birdie. I was impressed all morning by the players’ ability to focus despite a multitude of random sounds coming from virtually every direction on the course.
Ciganda’s 20-footer for birdie stayed to the right, and Creamer plunked her short birdie in to even the match. While she didn’t seem to be sweating under the pressure, this scribe was starting to feel the perspiration ebb as we marched to the fifth.
After 4th hole
Score: USA 4, Spain 5 – All square
Writer’s status: “Sweatcon” level 5, but nothing to be concerned about
Spain employed some “strategery” on the fifth hole, with Munoz and Ciganda flip-flopping their hitting order since Ciganda was going to go for the green on the 335-yard hole. We had a lengthy wait for the seventh match of the day to clear the green, and Ciganda then pommeled her drive over the trees and into the right rough close to the greenside bunkers.
Lewis and Ciganda both missed birdie putts, and Munoz’s seven-footer for birdie stayed right. Lewis then made a clutch five-foot uphill par putt to halve the hole.
After 5th hole
Score: USA 4, Spain 4 – All square
Writer’s status: The wait on the tee, coupled with a lack of shade on the hole, had me in full sweat.
As I hunted for shade like Count Dracula on the par-3 sixth, the hunger pains started to kick in. We were getting close to lunchtime, and I was ready to nosh yet again in the media center.
The players must have been hungry for birdies, because they all stuck their tee shots within 20 feet of the pin, much to the delight of a loud gallery nestled on a hill flanking the green. After Creamer and Ciganda missed their birdie tries to the right, Munoz sunk a 5-footer for birdie that put the pressure on Lewis.
Lewis buckled down and came through, sinking her 4-footer for birdie to halve the hole.
After 6th hole
Score: USA 2, Spain 2 – All square
Writer’s status: Bordering on “sweaty monkey” territory
The players got cart rides up to the seventh tee, but I was forced to hoof it to the top of a pretty gnarly hill. It wasn’t exactly the Bataan Death March, but I did resemble Groucho Marx with the way I was plodding up the incline.
Three of the four found the fairway on the seventh, while Munoz ended up in the left fairway bunker. Ciganda, Creamer and Lewis missed mid-length birdie putts, while Munoz pushed her chip shot five feet past the hole.
With the U.S. in for par, Ciganda missed a 2-footer to halve the hole, putting all the pressure on Munoz. When her 5-foot par attempt slid wide right, the U.S. had its first lead of the day and the Spaniards were left re-trying their putts after the hole was completed.
After 7th hole
Score: USA 4, Spain 5 – USA 1 Up
Writer’s status: Full sweat going, feet beginning to hurt from walking on side hills
The quartet delighted a big gallery of fans by placing their tee shots within a 40-foot radius in the fairway, and then all stuck their approaches within 25 feet for birdie. Creamer didn’t hit her 22-foot, right-to-left-breaking putt hard enough, Ciganda pushed her putt from roughly the same distance right of the hole, and Munoz left her 18-footer short.
Lewis had a 12-footer to win the hole, but didn’t hit it with enough pace, and the teams conceded par putts to one another.
After 8th hole
Score: USA 4, Spain 4 – USA 1 Up
Writer’s status: Officially in the midst of a full froth, running low on water and hungry
The par-5 ninth provided some drama, and Creamer helped the U.S. grab a hole with the shot of the match with a fairway wood. She put her second shot on the green, about 30 feet from the hole for eagle.
Ciganda ran her approach through the green, then came up short with a wickedly tough downhill chip. Creamer then hit a great eagle putt to within inches, and Spain conceded a birdie putt to the American.
Ciganda’s birdie chip ran past the hole on the left, and Munoz pushed her 23-footer for birdie past the cup on the right, leaving the U.S. with another hole victory.
On a side note, apparently swimming legend Michael Phelps was at the course today watching the same group, and I walked right by him heading to the ninth tee without even noticing. That’s how dedicated to my task I was today people!
After 9th hole
Score: USA 4, Spain 5 – USA 2 Up
Writer’s status: Not as exhausted as expected, but ready for lunch and an air-conditioned media tent
As the players headed off for the 10th tee, I made a beeline for the clubhouse, where I took a bird bath of sorts in the restroom to make myself somewhat presentable again. From then, it was straight to the media tent for a lunch of Cuban sandwiches and pasta salad, necessary fuel required to pound out this diatribe.
It was a great experience walking inside the ropes with some of the world’s best players on such a grand stage, and my joy and memories from the jaunt will far outweigh the discomfort from the sun, sweat and achy feet.
Note: Lewis and Creamer held on to defeat Munoz and Ciganda 2 Up in a tough match to give the United States two points on the board and a clean sweep on the day.
Neal Reid will be on-site all week at the International Crown writing behind-the-scenes articles for LPGA.com. The longtime LPGA media relations coordinator (1998-2004) and current freelance writer will provide daily insight into the inaugural event from Caves Valley Golf Club up and through the final match on Sunday. Follow him on Twitter @NealReid21.