Spain might have seen its reign as an international soccer power come crashing down in the first two weeks of the World Cup last month in Brazil, but its potential as a major factor in women's golf was in sharp focus the past few days at the LPGA's inaugural International Crown.
The Spaniards, who arrived at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills last week with confident games and rather anonymous profiles, left Sunday carrying the glistening silver trophy and wearing the four individual crowns for their victory in the eight-country, 32-player event.
Except for Friday, when Spain was swept by a United States team that failed to reach Sunday's singles, it was a nearly perfect performance. In fact, Spain didn't lose any of the six matches it played the past two days, including a 4-0 sweep in singles by a team with only one member ranked in the top 20 in the world.
A 15-foot birdie putt by Belen Mozo on the par-5 16th hole — followed by a subsequent 8-foot missed birdie chance by Thailand's Moriya Jutanagarn — closed out Mozo's 3-and-2 victory and clinched the win for her team. Spain (7-2-1) finished with 15 points, four ahead of Sweden (5-4-1).
If anything, Spain's victory showed how local knowledge and familiarity with each other go a long way toward victory.
Azahara Munoz and Carlota Ciganda were members of the Arizona State team that won the 2009 NCAA women's title at Caves Valley. Munoz, Ciganda and Beatriz Recari played on the last two Solheim Cup champions for Europe. All four, including Mozo, played junior golf together in Spain.
"It's our team, and it's so special," Mozo said a few moments after making the clinching putt. "You put another four girls [on the team] and maybe not as much. But we have always won together. I think that coming in, we knew that we had that advantage over the other teams."
Mozo and her teammates were not the only ones celebrating Sunday.
LPGA and Caves Valley officials also were in a pretty good mood after the conclusion of an event that was first conceptualized four years ago and came off with barely a hitch. That Caves Valley was able to play the perfect host did not surprise LPGA commissioner Michael Whan.
"The staff here, even the guys that are raking the bunkers, are like the nicest kids I've ever met in my life," Whan said. "Everyone is so friendly and engaged. It just feels like a club that has done this 100 times. It's very polished."
Caves Valley chairman Steve Fader said after the awards ceremony Sunday that he was "absolutely thrilled" with the way the event played out and the course played.
Though admitting that the U.S.'s absence Sunday might have cut down some on the large crowds that lined the fairways and surrounded many of the greens the previous two days (LPGA officials declined to announce attendance figures for the event.), Fader said: "Just the energy that was all around the past four days was unmatched."
The same might be said about the team from Spain.
Unlike a U.S. team that continued to struggle with the chemistry that has been one of its downfalls in recent Solheim Cup competitions against Europe, the four Spanish players have a long history of success that dates back to winning numerous amateur team events in Europe.
"We won so many times," said Recari, who defeated Mikaela Parmlid of Sweden, 3 and 2.
Losing both matches to the U.S. on Friday helped the Spanish players refocus for the weekend. As Recari rode on a golf cart back to the clubhouse after she and Mozo lost to Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson that day, she told an LPGA official to "keep shining my crown."
After Spain rallied from last place in Pool A to a four-way tie for second place after Saturday's fourball matches — a point behind Japan going into singles — Ciganda told her teammates that she wanted to play in the first match and take on South Korea's Na Yeon Choi, ranked 18th in the world. Ciganda is ranked 63rd.
"I just want to play first, win the point and then go support my teammates," said Ciganda, who won five of the first six holes in what became a resounding 8-and-6 victory — the largest margin of the week in any match. "I knew that we can do it, and I believe in this team more than anyone."
Munoz recalled looking at a scoreboard early in her match and seeing that Ciganda was already way ahead.
"That was definitely a plus," said Munoz, who won the first hole against Ai Miyazato of Japan and then didn't win another until taking two of the last three to win 2 and 1, the closest match Spain had Sunday. "Then Bea [Recari] got going pretty well from the beginning."
Given their previous history together, the Spanish players were not surprised by their victory.
Neither was Karen Stupples, former Women's British Open champion who recently retired from competition to concentrate on her career as an analyst for the Golf Channel. Though she knew that both the U.S. and South Korea, the two top seeds, were "very strong," Stupples said Sunday that she picked Spain because of its history in match play.
"They're all fighters," Stupples said. "They're all like little pitbulls. They love it. They just love the match play thing. They just want to go out there and win, and for some reason, they excel at it. And, they're such good friends. They get along so well with each other. You can't fight that. It's tough to beat."
The victory brought Ciganda to tears.
"It's one of the greatest days in my life," she said during the awards ceremony before breaking down and being comforted by her teammates.
Julio Mateo, who grew up playing junior golf a few years ahead of Ciganda and Recari in Pamplona — the Spanish city famous for the Running of the Bulls — drove from Dayton, Ohio, to Baltimore to watch them play the past three days. Mateo said Sunday that the women have already made an impact in their country.
"Women's golf before them was definitely a little more outside the radar," Mateo said. "What they've accomplished so far already is impressive. We had Seve [Ballesteros], we had men's golf. For women growing up in Spain playing golf, we didn't have role models like them."
Said Recari: "It's only going to help. We had great leading Spanish golfers with Seve and with Jose [Maria Olazabal] and Miguel Angel [Jimenez] and then Sergio [Garcia]. I hope that, with what we did today, more girls are going to watch and say, 'I want to be with them raising this trophy for my country.' "
It was something that a certain soccer team couldn't pull off in Brazil.
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Dodson contributed to this article.
LPGA's International Crown highlights
Best Performance (Individual): Carlota Ciganda. The 26-year-old Spaniard, who was the top player on the Ladies European tour in 2012, birdied four of the first six holes and eight of the 12 she played in her one-sided, 8-and-6 thumping of Na Yeon Choi of South Korea
Best Shot of the Day: When Belen Mozo sank a 15-foot birdie on the par-5 16th, the 25-year-old Spaniard might have been the only person at Caves Valley Golf Club not to realize she had clinched the International Crown for her team.
Hardest Hole: No. 9. For the second straight day, this 428-yard par-4 gave the field fits. It produced and eight bogeys, as well as a double-bogey by Choi.
Quote of the Day: LPGA commissioner Michael Whan said during the awards ceremony to celebrate Spain's victory that he will change the pronounciation of his last name to "Juan" to honor the champions. Think he was kidding.
Quote of the Day (bonus): All four players from Spain were asked after their victory what they will take from the first International Crown. Mozo talked about the golf course, the volunteers, the sponsors and just about anyone else who helped Spain win. Mozo also said she liked the format. "I know that some countries, like the United States, didn't like it," she said. "I think it was great. It was something different."
— Aaron Dodson and Don Markus