The charm of the Walker Cup match, being played this week at sand-sprayed Seminole Golf Club, is the simplicity of its purpose.
The Walker Cup is there to celebrate amateur golf at its best – match-play competition between the American side and the Great Britain & Ireland side every two years, always at places like Royal County Down, National Golf Links and, this time at what may be the finest creation on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
It’s too bad more people won’t pay attention to the Walker Cup because it matters not just now but before and long after the matches are played. It’s one of the game’s heirlooms, passed down from one generation of amateurs to the next, except in the case of rarities like Jay Sigel and Bill Campbell who spanned generations and three decades in their remarkable Walker Cup careers.
Here’s the rub:
As near and dear to the heart of amateur golf as the Walker Cup may be, perhaps it’s time for the event’s U.S. leadership to break with tradition and find a professional captain.
Tiger Woods. (Admittedly, that’s a reach.)
It’s sacrilege to some but the idea – maybe it’s better to call it a concept – has been discussed among USGA officials as a way of gently modernizing the Walker Cup and injecting an element of star power into an event that has a history filled with future professional stars. It began with a conversation about Jack Nicklaus as a potential captain and when a prominent USGA official was asked about the concept last week, he acknowledged that it has been a subject of discussion.
Being named captain of a Walker Cup team is, in the amateur world, like captaining the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team for professionals. It’s an honor and a privilege, one of the boldest lines on a career résumé.
For men like Buddy Marucci and Jim Holtgrieve, the Walker Cup is practically part of their DNA, as it should be. There is a romance to the amateur game that the professional game can never have because they separate at a point. It doesn’t make one better than the other. It just makes them different.
The honor of being on a Walker Cup staff would remain but having a former Walker Cup player who went on to win major championships and perhaps make the World Golf Hall of Fame would come with its own gravitas.
Certainly there are capable candidates to captain the United States Walker Cup team down the line – Nathan Smith, Todd White, Mike McCoy and Scott Harvey come to mind – but it may be approaching the point when it’s time to change directions or at least consider it, even if it makes traditionalists shudder.
The idea of asking Luke Donald to captain the GB&I team has been floated. He would probably be a superb captain and it would matter to him, rather than be a ceremonial few days with the youngsters.
It would be the same for an American professional but it would need to be someone who understands the Walker Cup, what it means and how it feels. Would having someone like Hal Sutton captain the U.S. side make the Walker Cup better? It certainly would draw more attention and, shallow as that can sound, it would make a difference.
From time to time, PGA Tour players will talk about their Walker Cup experiences in interviews. Maybe they’re talking about a teammate who is playing well or the nerves they’ve felt or the most fun they’ve had. The Walker Cup makes an imprint that lingers.
In the past year or so, Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Champ and Will Zalatoris have become familiar names to golf fans. Four years ago at Los Angeles Country Club, they played together on the winning American Walker Cup team.
Golf is reluctant to change, which is both frustrating and charmingly respectful of what has come before. The game doesn’t hurry into decisions, though it is getting better at it. Introducing a professional player as a Walker Cup captain may not get tongues wagging like $40 million for the PGA Tour Player Impact Program, but would be a significant move.
Maybe it’s just a thought, something that comes up over a second scotch and soda in the grillroom at clubs where the Walker Cup matters.
Think of what it would mean to the 19- and 20-year-olds who had a chance to play for one of the game’s most accomplished players? Think making the Walker Cup team would matter just a little more? Think media attention might ratchet up a little bit?
Maybe it’s Leonard, or maybe a few years down the road it’s Rickie Fowler.
Great players don’t always make great captains or coaches. Ask Magic Johnson. But golf can be different.
The goal behind the American Ryder Cup task force a few years ago was to take a broken system and build a new one that has a strategy built on certain fundamentals. Refine it and pass it along from one captain to the next.
It doesn’t promise winning but it should offer a better chance at success.
The Americans have had plenty of Walker Cup success and there’s plenty to be said for not fixing something that is not broken. Maybe that’s the case with the Walker Cup.
But maybe it’s time to think what if …
Top: Rickie Fowler and United States captain Buddy Marucci during the 2009 Walker Cup Match