JUNO BEACH, FLORIDA | A mysterious stomach ailment spread among both teams during pre-match preparations, and it led to revised rules of the 48th Walker Cup at Seminole Golf Club. There were mixed stories as to how the ailment arrived, but as many as 18 team members, including the two captains, became ill during the week.
All the players and captains tested negative for COVID-19 as part of the USGA’s testing protocol. As more players became sick and the match inched closer, a statement was released calling the issues “gastrointestinal” and new rules were crafted to allow substitutes for the first three sessions, only in the case of health-related problems.
“Over the past 24 hours, a number of players from both the GB&I and USA Teams have been treated for gastrointestinal issues and are currently under observation by medical professionals at the teams’ hotel,” the joint statement from the USGA and R&A read on Friday morning.
More than one player was taken to the hospital to be treated for severe dehydration, including U.S. Amateur champion Tyler Strafaci. Joe Long of Great Britain & Ireland, the reigning Amateur champion, didn’t play the first three sessions as he recovered. After sitting out the Saturday morning foursomes session, Strafaci was a late scratch from Saturday afternoon singles and was taken to the hospital, where he received three bags of IV fluids.
“I wanted to go out and compete,” Strafaci said on Saturday evening. “It's what I've been preparing my whole life for. It wasn't easy at all. Physically, I just couldn't have walked 18 holes today.”
Both teams played an alternate on Saturday morning foursomes as impacted players remained back at the hotel. And both alternates – Jake Bolton from GB&I and Mac Meissner of the U.S. – helped secure a point for their respective sides.
On a sun-splashed Friday evening set against the backdrop of Seminole’s vibrant pink stucco clubhouse and waving sea grape bushes, a gathering of several hundred came together for the opening ceremony of the Walker Cup.
Among those in attendance was former U.S. president George W. Bush – he gave a humorous speech and joked about being in the “Famous Fathers Club” with U.S. team captain Nathaniel Crosby – and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who received a shoutout from Seminole club president Jimmy Dunne. The following morning, Bush stood next to the players on the first tee and chatted with fellow Texan Cole Hammer.
The speeches focused on the Walker Cup coming to Florida for the first time in its 99-year history, as well as the arduous task of navigating the pandemic to continue the competition as scheduled. The most salient points were made by R&A chairman Ian Pattinson. After describing how the GB&I squad would have very limited supporters on the grounds because of pandemic circumstances, Pattinson asked the crowd for their cooperation.
“I ask for your enthusiastic praise of their good shots and quiet sympathy for anything else,” Pattinson said, which earned the loudest applause of the evening.
Pattinson’s plea was never in doubt. Subdued was the word to describe the festivities during the weekend. To be sure, Seminole was sublime, offering a stiff test for the young amateurs. However, the usual throng of GB&I partisans, who ordinarily would make the trek across the pond to root their lads home, did not come courtesy of COVID-19 strictures.
Not even players' families made the journey. Mindful of this, the spectators – less than 2,000 and made up mostly of Seminole members, families and guests – were restrained, politely clapping for good shots played for either side. There were no distant roars for an American birdie or point won. In all, it was a classy nod from a high golf-IQ community.
There are few stages in amateur golf as nerve-inducing as the first few moments of Walker Cup competition. That pressure-packed environment, combined with Seminole’s generous opening hole, created immediate fireworks mere minutes into the proceedings.
For starters, GB&I’s Alex Fitzpatrick hit Saturday morning’s first shot and moments later confidently walked in a 35-foot birdie putt, to which the crowd gave an enthusiastic cheer. When Davis Thompson of the U.S. side made a 10-foot birdie putt of his own to match, the gallery buzzed and one spectator verbalized what the rest were thinking: “Wow, that is so good.”
The first hole was far from finished. Quade Cummins and Austin Eckroat, an Oklahoma Sooner paired with an Oklahoma State Cowboy, birdied the first in textbook fashion for an early lead against Mark Power and John Murphy. The third match out saw both teams hit terrible tee shots near the lip of the fairway bunker, but alternate-turned-competitor Meissner hooked a wedge around a palm tree to 20 feet from the hole, setting up a par that won the hole against Jack Dyer and Matty Lamb.
There were more birdies to come in the last foursomes match of the morning. Angus Flanagan of GB&I found himself in an awkward lie in the fairway bunker, but hit a crafty approach to inside 5 feet before turning to his caddie and saying, “See, I told you it wasn’t that hard.” The birdie only tied the U.S. side thanks to American William Mouw fist-pumping home a 20-foot birdie effort of his own.
If that wasn’t enough, the nearby second tee had its fair share of excitement. Cummins pulled his tee shot into the water but the Americans still saved par to win the hole. Meissner followed up his stellar shot at the first with a smother hook into the water that must not have carried 170 yards.
Despite a torrential downpour on Thursday that dropped two inches of rain on the course, Seminole’s expansive canal system quickly helped with drainage. As a result, the course presented the absolute best version of itself throughout the competition. The glassy greens neared 14 on the Stimpmeter as three-putts within 10 feet occurred on multiple occasions.
“If your partner is inside of you, you're just lagging it up there as close as you can,” Mouw said. “If it goes in, great. If not, it's a tap-in.”
The never-ending sight of balls slowly rolling away from the hole, often into a bunker, reminded players that mistakes were around every turn and no match could be considered complete until handshakes or fist bumps were exchanged. That dynamic led to more won holes than tied holes – on Day 1, just shy of 60 percent of all of the holes were won.
A prime example of that happened on Saturday morning when Hammer and Thompson tied Fitzpatrick and Barclay Brown on the first two holes before a 15-hole streak of hole wins commenced. That included Fitzpatrick and Brown winning Nos. 14, 15 and 16 to erase a 3-down deficit, but ultimately they lost after making a bogey on the devilish par-3 17th, a hole that came close to being unplayable during Wednesday’s practice round and was still brutally difficult all weekend long.
Another match, a Sunday foursomes bout between Power and Murphy of GB&I and Coody and Pak of the U.S., started with seven consecutive holes won by either side.
Top: Tyler Strafaci
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