ORLANDO, Fla. – Shortly after noon on Wednesday at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, members of the International Arnold Palmer Cup team scrambled to find enough cart coolers that still had ice water in them. Then, one by one, they zeroed in on their captains, who had just led them to the most lopsided victory in event history.
Cal Poly women’s head coach Sofie Aagaard? Splash!
Florida State men’s and women’s assistant Robert Duck? Direct hit!
Washington men’s head coach Alan Murray? Score!
That left only Virginia women’s head coach Ria Scott, who tried to avoid the celebratory ice bath as player Sam Choi ran toward her, at full speed and with a full cooler above his head. Scott failed to stay dry, but Choi didn’t exactly complete a clean dump, either, colliding with Scott and sending her and the cooler crashing to the ground. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the accidental tackle drew roars of laughter from their International comrades, many of whom got the hysterical moment on video.
If there wasn’t video evidence of other gaffes by the Internationals this week in Orlando, that’s because there wasn’t any subject material. For three days and four sessions, it was a near-flawless and dominating performance by the visiting side, which won 40.5-19.5, the greatest margin of victory in 24 editions of the Palmer Cup and four points more than the Americans’ 17-point triumph in France in 2018, the first year that women were added to the competition and the number of total points available was increased to 60.
“The Americans had such a strong team, and we knew coming here we were going to have to give it our all, play our best,” Murray said. “I gotta say that the group we had, the energy, the passion … sometimes the stars align, and you get a special group and just something happens organically and easy. I feel like that was it for our guys.”
In some ways, Murray and his fellow captains’ jobs were simple. They inherited a stacked roster that included a women’s Dream Team of sorts. Five Internationals – South Carolina’s Pauline Roussin-Bouchard, LSU’s Ingrid Lindblad, Oklahoma State’s Maja Stark, Arizona State’s Linn Grant and USC’s Gabi Ruffels – made the cut two weeks ago at the U.S. Women’s Open. The men weren’t too shabby, either, with four GB&I Walker Cup hopefuls to go along with Texas Tech’s Ludvig Aberg, who won two pro events in Sweden last summer, and Florida’s Yuxin Lin, who last month teed it up in his second Masters.
In other ways, though, these particular leadership roles were extremely difficult, and the captains faced a barrage of unique challenges. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic forced this event from the summer in Ireland to the winter in Orlando, which meant no home game for Murray and Co. The team also lost an assistant coach because of travel restrictions, and several players dropped out and had to be replaced. With so many changes, it appeared an impossible task to bring together 24 players from an assortment of different countries and backgrounds, and to get everyone on the same page in time for the event.
Oh, and they had to face an equally-talented U.S. squad that included U.S. Women's Open low amateur Kaitlyn Papp, seven players who had just spent two days at Bay Hill for the Walker Cup practice session and recently-turned pro John Augenstein, who in less than two months will be making his pro PGA Tour debut at The American Express.
But the Internationals rose to the occasion. In the months leading into the Palmer Cup, Murray organized a few Zoom calls while Scott sent out questionnaires and Aagaard contacted players’ families, looking for any info that could be used to create pairings. When the team arrived at Arnie’s Place, games of ping pong swiftly broke out and new friendships were quickly forged.
“It was so cool to come together with people from all different cultures and all different ages,” said UCLA’s Emma Spitz, from Austria. “We all got along so well, and even though I didn’t know some of the players before this week, we’ve made such good friendships and they’re going to last for so long.
“There was no one on this team that felt like an outsider.”
There was also no player who didn’t earn a point. Of course, that’s what happens when you don’t drop a session. And win Tuesday morning’s foursomes session, 10.5-1.5, with the half-point coming on a default tie thanks to a last-minute WD by U.S. player William Mouw of Pepperdine. And add 14 more points in singles, with Stark, Arizona State’s Linn Grant, Texas’ Sophie Guo, Stanford’s Angelina Ye, Auburn’s Kaleigh Telfer, Aberg and San Diego State’s Puwit Anupansuebsai all capping undefeated showings with singles victories.
“At the end of the day, these kids were the stars of the show,” Murray said. “From the first day, our guys were ready for the battle. We had that little bit of momentum and we were able to run downhill.”
While Louisville’s Matthias Schmid was awarded the exemption into next spring’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was Anupansuebsai, a senior from Thailand, who was presented with the Michael Carter Award as the participant who best represents the qualities and ideals of sportsmanship, integrity and upholding of the game.
“This just means a lot to me,” Anupansuebsai said. “It’s so special.”
Anupansuebsai was arguably the feel-good story of the week, on either side. Five years ago, Anupansuebsai was playing the Western Junior in the Chicago area when he found out the Palmer Cup was being contested nearby at Rich Harvest Farms. He didn’t know much about the event back then – heck, he barely knew English – but he jumped at the opportunity to go watch anyway. He spent the day following Arizona State star Jon Rahm, who was the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur at the time.
“I learned so much that day,” Anupansuebsai said.
Now, he had come full circle by going 3-0 in his first Palmer Cup, which culminated in a 3-and-2 victory over Oklahoma’s Garett Reband on Wednesday. He just wished his parents could’ve been there to see it.
Anupansuebsai, an only child, hasn’t been home to Nakhon Phanom in more than three years. He had planned a visit this year, but the pandemic altered those arrangements.
“Maybe next year,” he said.
Fortunately for Anupansuebsai, he at least got to hear from his parents this week. The International players were presented with a special video featuring their families Monday night after they opened up a 9-3 lead. There were tears. Some players, like Anupansuebsai, haven’t seen their families in a while. Others, like Spitz, will spend this Christmas away from their families. There were laughs, too.
“Creating that bond was really important during a time when you could’ve felt really alone,” Scott said.
Added Spitz: “It was an amazing surprise.”
For Anupansuebsai, though, it wasn’t much of a surprise. His father can’t read English, so when he got the email from the captains, he forwarded it to his son for a translation.
“I didn’t watch the video ahead of time, though, so I didn’t hear what they said until Monday,” Anupansuebsai said. “It was touching to hear their voices.”
Because the message was in Thai, Anupansuebsai’s team wanted him to translate for them. Normally hesitant to show much emotion, Anupansuebsai couldn’t help himself as he relayed what his parents had said.
“That’s when I got a little emotional,” Anupansuebsai said. “A tear almost came out.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as the International players and coaches posed for photo after photo with the trophy, Anupansuebsai was all smiles. Who could blame him? He and his teammates had come together in just days and collectively accomplished something incredible.
And not a single cooler of ice water was wasted.