JUNO BEACH, FLORIDA | The golf gods threw everything they had at the Great Britain & Ireland squad at the 2021 Walker Cup.
A worldwide pandemic that trapped half the team at home, locked out from preparing properly for this storied international competition. The loss of its best player, Sandy Scott, ahead of the match due to a wrist injury. A mysterious stomach virus that left some team members drained and dealing with wobbly legs. A fiery golf course that not even a violent thunderstorm on Thursday could tame.
And yet, the lads from GB&I distinguished themselves and left it all on the golf course. This was not the “walkover cup” that many predicted. GB&I might never have led at Seminole Golf Course but it was in the match until the very end.
felt like we all bonded really well throughout the week, just like some great
team morale, ” said Joe Long. “We had some great advice from Paul McGinley. We
just felt great out there. We’d done some great prep, and we just kind of gave
it our all.”
Observers can debate the turning point, but for this writer it came late on Saturday afternoon. After clawing back from a serious mid-morning deficit in the foursomes session, the GB&I squad had a clean shot at ending the day all square at four points each. However, England’s Angus Flanagan couldn’t close out his United States opponent, Austin Eckroat. After being 1 up with three holes to play, Flanagan went bogey-double bogey on Nos. 16 and 17 to fall behind. That swing cost his team dearly; instead of needing 6½ points to become just the third GB&I team to win on American soil, the visiting side went into Sunday needing 8½ points.
“They did everything I asked of them this week, and I am very, very proud of them."
Stuart Wilson, GB&I Team Captain
Their backs were against the wall. The Americans needed just six of the remaining 16 points to retain the crown after claiming a 7-5 overnight advantage.
GB&I needed to cut into the lead in the Sunday morning foursomes, and they did just that, winning 2½ points to go into singles just one full point down. Flanagan was again in the middle of the action. Partnered with Ben Schmidt, the GB&I duo battled back from a four-hole deficit after eight to snag a half point against Cole Hammer and Davis Thompson. The Americans collapsed on the last two holes, finishing bogey-double bogey to kick their advantage away.
think it’s massive at the moment ... we were just kind of grinding it out,
heads down and just keep committing,” Flanagan said. “In the end there was a
couple of mistakes from both of us, but we kind of made some good pars in the
end ... it’s good for the team and good momentum going into the afternoon.”
That momentum swing was palpable, as was the energy surge among the GB&I players. The competition was closer than anyone would have dared to imagine as singles began. The United States squad did not expect to be in this situation as singles dawned. The GB&I team simply refused to quit.
Their momentum survived the loss of the first two singles matches. Mark Power was routed by Eckroat, 7 and 6, and Alex Fitzpatrick was taken out by Pierceson Coody, 3 and 1. Although GB&I had a limited path to victory, there was a path.
Ultimately the clock ran out and the USA team prevailed, 14-12. It was closer than the two-point margin indicated.
GB&I was left with so many “what if” questions. What if Alex Fitzpatrick had won two of his possible four points, instead of coming up empty for the weekend? What if reigning Amateur champion Joe Long, who won his singles point in his only appearance, had been healthy and able to contribute in the first three sessions? What if Scott hadn’t had to sit out because of that bum wrist? What if one more putt was holed or one more ball remained on the green rather than – as they reference it at Seminole – just visited?
Captain Stuart Wilson, a member of the winning GB&I team at Ganton in 2003, took his team to the brink of victory. He never let them buy into the “heavy underdog” narrative, and his charges believed until the very end that victory was possible.
“They did everything I asked of them this week, and I am very, very proud of them,” he said at the closing ceremonies.
Wilson hopes to return as captain in 2023 at St. Andrews, where he won the Amateur Championship in 2004. He certainly deserves that nod, and he served up a warning to the American squad: “We’ll be ready.”
No one should doubt him.
The GB&I squad does indeed leave with their heads held high, but wondering, “what if?”
Top: John Murphy ducks his head in dejection with GB&I teammates after tough singles loss to Ricky Castillo.