Seminole Golf Club, as stoic as its legendary logo, demanded nothing short of absolute precision. And that was just the golf itself. The week for players from both sides, full of IV fluids, Gatorade and long days sick in hotel rooms, required a minor miracle to be completed as normal – a relative term in our current climate – due to a ferocious stomach bug that infected most of the participants.
So of course the heavily favored Americans had to work long into Sunday evening to finally dispose of a dogged Great Britain & Ireland squad at the 48th Walker Cup, winning for the third time in a row in the biennial amateur match. The ultimate tally came to 14-12, but the margin could not describe the amount of energy expended on both sides. Even the muted U.S. celebration looked more like exhaustion than jubilation.
“It’s a relief for me for them,” U.S. captain Nathaniel Crosby said with a smile.
The tightly contested affair never looked like the American cakewalk most experts guessed it would be. In the opening foursomes match on Saturday morning, GB&I quickly fell behind in all four of the contests and fears of a runaway appeared on the path to being realized. However, a brilliant 45-minute stretch of golf by the visitors – including the reversal of two 3-down deficits – brought each of the session’s matches to the 18th hole, something that hadn’t happened since 1983. A remarkable seven of eight foursomes matches for the weekend found their way to Seminole’s daunting home hole, a microcosm of the nip-and-tuck nature of the weekend.
The opening morning ended in a 2-2 tie, and justifiably so. Cole Hammer and Davis Thompson of the U.S. made par on the 17th to grab a 1-up lead against Alex Fitzpatrick and Barclay Brown before Hammer emphatically rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 18th to close the match, a defining moment of the Walker Cup. The alternates for each team, Jake Bolton of GB&I and Mac Meissner of the U.S., each played significant roles to win their side a point. In particular, Bolton made a long par putt on the 17th after his partner, Angus Flanagan, had miraculously extracted himself from the waste area left of the green, a moment Bolton bettered a hole later when he stuck his approach shot tight on the 18th to effectively end the match.
“I think the guys have a lot of self-belief, and I don't see why that should change,” Bolton said just after his unexpected performance. “We're all good players, and we all deserve to be here, so we're going to give it our best shot.”
His words were prophetic for what was to come. The eight Saturday singles were ultimately won by the impressive depth of the U.S. side, 5-3, to set up a 7-5 advantage heading into the final day, but GB&I had come agonizingly close to forcing another tie. Fitzpatrick lost his final two holes to Pierceson Coody in a 2-down loss, one of three losses by Fitzpatrick that ended on the 18th hole and one of four total. Austin Eckroat of the U.S. flipped a 1-down deficit against Flanagan into a 1-up victory by making pars on Nos. 16, 17 and 18. That one hurt GB&I’s chances more than any other.
“A lot of ebbs and flows in the matches, and I feel that the U.S. is very fortunate to have a narrow lead going into tomorrow,” Crosby suggested after Day 1.
The other three matches were wildly entertaining affairs.
Heading into Sunday, virtually everyone on property agreed that GB&I would need a morning foursomes victory to have any realistic chance at winning the Walker Cup. The Americans surprisingly decided to play the previously ill Tyler Strafaci – who went to the hospital for IV fluids on Saturday – while GB&I smartly held Joe Long for a third consecutive session, a captaining error by Crosby who asked Strafaci to play 36 holes Sunday in the South Florida heat. Strafaci, admirable for his effort, looked weak and unable to perform alongside Stewart Hagestad in a 6-and-5 loss to Matty Lamb and Jack Dyer before also losing his singles match.
The other three matches were wildly entertaining affairs. The Irish duo of Mark Power and Jack Murphy started birdie-birdie-eagle to take a commanding lead against two of the U.S. squad’s best in Coody and John Pak. The Americans slowly chipped into the lead, tying the match with a par on 17, but Coody’s approach to the final hole missed right and funneled down onto the driving range, sending the team to an untimely bogey. Meanwhile, Murphy hit one of the best approach shots of the event to 15 feet to set up a winning par.
“The shot he hit into the last, that 5-iron, it's pretty hard to describe how impressive that was,” Power said of his partner. “So definitely going to give credit to my Cork man here.”
Behind them, Fitzpatrick and Barclay Brown had won holes 14 and 15 to go from 1 down to 1 up against Ricky Castillo and William Mouw, but then lost 16 and 17 to fall 1 down once again. Fitzpatrick’s frustrating Walker Cup continued with a poor approach into 18 that met the same fate as Coody’s.
But the biggest momentum turner of the morning came when GB&I’s Flanagan and Ben Schmidt rallied from 4 down with 10 holes to play, forcing a tie with the formidable Davis Thompson/Cole Hammer pairing. Just needing a tie on the last hole to win the match, Hammer pulled his drive left into an awkward downhill lie inches in front of a fairway bunker where Thompson barely could advance the ball. Hammer would go on to have a 5-foot bogey putt to tie the hole and win the match, but he pummeled it way past the hole to yield a half point to GB&I.
With just the Sunday singles remaining, the Americans lead was 8½-7½. Even though they only needed 4½ points out of 10 singles matches to retain the Walker Cup, a nervous energy could be felt on the grounds. The Americans average world ranking heading into the event was 14 compared to 68 for GB&I. The lowest-ranked player for the U.S. was Mouw at No. 34. GB&I’s lowest-ranked player was Dyer at No. 190. Logic would say the Americans should have taken complete command like they did in 2017 at Los Angeles Country Club.
In the Sunday singles, there was legitimate concern the victory could slip away. Although Eckroat and Coody won the first two matches with ease, GB&I authored a valiant last-ditch effort. Long overcame an unplayable lie on the 18th hole to scratch out a win against Pak, Matty Lamb hit clutch shots down the stretch to beat Thompson and Flanagan never trailed in a 2-up win against Mouw. Had Brown not bogeyed the final hole to tie his match with Quade Cummins, the proceedings could have been even closer.
But ultimately, the U.S. owned just enough talent that became more exposed in both singles sessions. Castillo finished off a 4-0 weekend and Hammer won to go 3-0-1, the two carrying the day. When Hammer’s 4-and-3 win against Ben Schmidt went final, the Americans had technically retained the Walker Cup. Soon after, Hagestad won his match with an emphatic fist pump to make it official.
None of it came with ease.
“Living up to expectations is hard,” Hammer said. “There's no two ways about it. We looked like a really tough team to beat on paper. … It means the world. I had no idea that my match was going to be the clinching point, but it is really special.”
The 2023 Walker Cup will be headed to the Old Course at St. Andrews, this time in September instead of May. Two years after that, Cypress Point Club in California will host the 2025 edition.
Top: John Pak (left) and Tyler Strafaci of the United States celebrate.