ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | With GB&I having won 7½ points to the Americans’ 4½ on the first day of the Walker Cup at the Old Course, the hosts’ eventual 14½-11½ defeat hardly could go down as an out-and-out disaster. After all, the World Amateur Golf Ranking, though not everyone has great faith in them, told their own story. To recap, the Americans had as many as eight of the top 10 in their side, and GB&I had just one in the top 20: John Gough, at No. 14.
As if the halfway score were not enough in the way of a wakeup call for the visitors, the first two of the USA pairings knocked their approach shots into the Swilcan Burn at the first in the morning foursomes. Thereafter, they came bounding back to win the first three matches, largely because they were the more polished putters toward the end.
In the last of the morning games, the GB&I Irish duo of Liam Nolan and Mark Power walked away with an emphatic 4-and-3 victory, one which allowed their team to sit down to lunch with an 8½-7½ lead. Lesser by a long way to the one they had known on Saturday night, but a lead nonetheless.
It was Peter McEvoy, a five-time five Walker Cup player and captain of winning sides in 1999 and 2001, who had worked out for himself that of the matches won by a GB&I side in golf and many another sport besides, two-thirds would be won at home against one-third away. No doubt that McEvoy’s good news would have been delivered to the side of ’23, but it was not enough. On the day, the Americans were the better amid the combination of rising pressure and wind.
The game between the 16-year-old Connor Graham and the 32-year-old Stewart Hagestad was a case in point. There was the thought that Graham, at his early stage in life, still had to be hit by the notion that golf is a difficult game, and that Hagestad, as he had said himself, had reached a point in his career where he had seen it all before. In other words, they were likely to be a good match.
“The players, the spectators; playing in front of crowds like that was crazy. There were often times where I just looked back down from a green and couldn't even see grass. It was people everywhere."
In connection with his long career, incidentally, Hagestad told GGP the story of how, when he had amassed a 10 in one of the qualifying rounds at the latest of his 13 U.S. Amateurs, he had had to calm down his father when a paternal message arrived asking, “Why?” He had replied with a weary, “These things happen” before explaining that he had played the other 17 holes rather well.
For the first eight holes, the contest was all-square and every bit as close. But then the American’s greater experience started to show, and how. After a birdie at the par-4 ninth to go 1-up, Hagestad holed from 60 feet across the 11th green to go 2-up. Although the junior member at Blairgowrie Golf Club had the better of him at the 12th, Hagestad put him in his place at the 15th by holing from 20 yards on his way to winning, 3 and 2.
The John Gough-versus-Gordon Sargent match went similarly awry for Gough at the end. Well though he had played for so long, with nothing finer than when he holed with his wedge for a winning 2 at the sixth, he over-shot a couple of greens toward the end before driving out of bounds at the 17th. The 18th was shared in 3s.
It was Gough’s last round as an amateur, and one that he never will forget.
“I'm going to take more than you can imagine away from the week,” he said. “The players, the spectators; playing in front of crowds like that was crazy. There were often times where I just looked back down from a green and couldn't even see grass. It was people everywhere.
“I don't think you can understand the feeling until you're there, and I'm sure half of those watching would agree it was just simply electric – nip and tuck all the way.”
Gough was among those GB&I players to collect two points over the two days, with Mark Power leading with three.
At the start of the week, Phil Anderton, the R&A’s chief development officer, passed on how someone had posed the question as to why the R&A persisted with a series which the Americans had won 38 times to GB&I’s nine and one tie. “Wasn’t it a bit of a lost cause?” persisted the chap.
To which Anderton had replied, “You need to look at the last 20 matches or so.” Here, he was pointing to the fact that the Americans had won 13 to GB&I’s 7 in that period, though that statistic, of course, took a turn for the worse Sunday.
Plans for how GB&I would tackle the match of ’23 were first laid in the summer of ’22 by Anderton, along with Charlie Maran, the chairman of the R&A’s Championship Committee, team manager Ewen Mordant and team captain Stuart Wilson. They asked for opinions from past captains, winners and losers, and there was one thing which stood out above everything else. Good bonding among the players mattered above all else, and that side of things could not have worked better.
There were more squad sessions than usual as Anderton and Co. made sure that every player who was “a team possible” would feel as if he were a part of the preparation.
“We would keep such players and their coaches up to speed with everything that was going on, and that included all those of our players who were at college in the States,” Anderton said. “We did not want them to feel that they were missing out.”
Nor did those who had hatched the plans want to be left with the feeling that there was more they could have done.
“We just wanted the result to be all about who played the better golf on the day,” Anderton said.
In looking back, Wilson gave as honest of a verdict as one could want: “It was a great performance from the boys yesterday to get those three points ahead and then still have a slight advantage going into singles. We were all still quite optimistic.
“But I think, yeah, the Americans just handled the conditions slightly better than us, and to be fair to the boys, without being too harsh or that, I'm sure they'll be quite disappointed in the way they played themselves.
“They tried their hardest, but they didn't turn up with their ‘A’ games this afternoon, I would say in some matches. They'll be the ones that will feel it and hurt tomorrow, but the good thing for them is they've got the future. They've got tomorrow.”
Crowd behaviour, meanwhile, was quite a treat, with the only incident one in which a couple of spectators followed a couple too many drinks by trying to leap the Swilcan. Both ended up covered in water and slime before disappearing from the premises without any intervention from the police.
Top: The look from Alex Maguire as America's winning putt drops exemplifies the feeling from a GB&I team that fought hard but came up short.
ROSS PARKER, R&A VIA GETTY IMAGES