By John Hopkins
Please complete the following sentence. The best two days in golf are …
No 1 has its appeal. A pattern of play has formed after the first day and is changed or confirmed on the second, often creating a palm-sweating, stomach-churning third day. For example, the 2012 match at Medinah when Ian Poulter birdied his last four holes on Saturday afternoon to wrench the initiative from the Americans and set up victory for Europe the next day. Or the remarkable turnaround at the Country Club in 1999 when the Americans, having won only six points of a possible 16 on the first two days, rallied to win the first six singles on the last day en route to a famous victory.
No 2 is unarguable. Consider Shane Lowry’s steady progress at Royal Portrush in 2019, a memorable if wet walk in front of tens of thousands of rain-soaked, roaring fellow Irishmen to his coronation as Open champion. Could anything be more emphatic and awe-inspiring than Tiger Woods’s crushing of his rivals in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach winning not by five, not by 10 but by 15 strokes?
But the winner is the Walker Cup, the biennial competition between amateurs from the US and Great Britain & Ireland that combines gentleness and politeness, camaraderie and competition. The national Opens of the US and Britain are multi-tented jamborees, travelling circuses that move at a stately pace around their respective countries pitching camp each June or July. The Ryder Cup has become a star of sport on television in the 30 years since television rights were sold for a few hundred thousand dollars but occasionally it descends into the fervid atmosphere of an 18th-century bear pit.
The Walker Cup is a fête, where bands often play and sometimes a dog pokes an inquisitive nose between the legs of spectators. Shooting sticks are compulsory and there are more blue blazers at a Walker Cup than in a Brooks Brothers sale. It is a genteel occasion where there are few ropes and little rowdiness. There is a decent, not an indecent, number of spectators, no four-balls and, glory be, foursomes play as a reminder of a bygone age. Some might describe it as an anachronism in this millennium, but the world would be a duller place without the occasional nod of the head to the past.
“I have never stopped looking back on it, not only because the match changed me from a good junior into a good golfer but also because the whole week at Muirfield – the preparation for the match as well as the match itself – personified sport at its best, people at their best, the world at its best,” Jack Nicklaus once wrote.
The Walker Cup was born in the entrails of the first World War, survived the second and now, 99 years after it was first played, is as strong a sporting example of the special relationship that exists between Great Britain and Ireland and the United States as ever. Presidents and prime ministers may come and go but the Walker Cup, like the Mississippi, just keeps on rollin’ along. The US and Britain are not so much two nations divided by a common language, as someone is supposed to have said, but two nations united by a common love of amateur golf. The Ryder Cup is named after a seed merchant from St Albans in England; the Walker Cup after a member of a family that provided two US presidents. The Walker Cup is the amateur game’s apogee.
It is not just the match that is so attractive. It is the venues and their surroundings that stick in the mind almost more than the golf. Think of the 2003 match at Ganton, England, where the host club serves Ganton cake – fruitcake and with it a glass of port and a slice of Stilton cheese. Think of any of the eight Walker Cups to have been staged in St Andrews, where the Old Course starts and ends within a 5-iron of the city’s centre and the graves and memorials to Old Tom Morris and Young Tom in the old cathedral are not much farther away.
Think of the jaw-dropping beauty of Cypress Point, where the 1981 match was held, and the small clubhouse on a bluff overlooking what Robert Louis Stevenson called the perfect confluence of land and sea. Having visited the club on the Monterey Peninsula it is impossible to forget the joke by Bob Hope, himself an example of a British and US alliance given he was born in a suburb of London, England, before moving to the US. Hope wisecracked: “They had a membership drive at Cypress Point and got rid of 50 members.”
“If it is said, occasionally with truth, that international matches do more harm than good, the Walker Cup series can always be cited with entire truth to the contrary.”
In different pre-COVID-19 times, spectators from the United Kingdom and mainland Europe and many more from the US would, even as these words are written, be descending on Seminole Golf Club, with its pearl of a course lapped by the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast of Florida. My colleague Ron Green Jr. aptly refers to it as “sand-sprayed Seminole,” and it is where 10 amateurs from Great Britain & Ireland will attempt to wrest back the Walker Cup it last held on that side of the Atlantic in 2015, in a two-day match starting on Saturday.
Seminole, Seminole, Oh Seminole. Even its name, based on an Indian tribe, is distinctive and evocative. Seminole has been said many times to have the best locker room in golf. Seminole, where Ben Hogan prepared for the Masters.
Sir Michael Bonallack, golf’s singular knight of the realm, played in nine Walker Cups of which two were as captain. Perhaps only Jay Sigel, a veteran of nine matches for the US, has a similar perspective on this biennial event. Is the Walker Cup in a good position, Bonallack was asked. “I hope so,” he replied. “I would like to think so but it depends on whether it can get enough people interested to play in it.”
Actually the supply of players seems endless, like that of musicians emerging from New Orleans. Young golfers are drawn to the highest level of amateur competition by the thought of moving on from there into a lucrative career as a professional and as a result few remain as amateurs. The difficulty is in finding former players to captain teams.
This has led to some blue-sky thinking. Recently, the USGA were bandying around Nicklaus’s name as a possible captain. The use of a professional in a quintessential amateur competition would not have been received with acclaim in all amateur quarters in the US, even though reinstated amateurs such as Jim Holtgrieve and Bob Lewis have been captains.
After the USGA decided to promote the inclusion of mid-amateurs in its teams, Nathan Smith, 42, the four-time US Mid-Amateur champion who played on three Walker Cup teams, is considered a certain future captain. Other strong candidates are accomplished amateur Todd White, 53; former Mid-Amateur champion Scott Harvey, 42; and Mike McCoy, 58, who played in the 2015 Walker Cup. If Smith, White, Harvey and McCoy take up traditional two-match cycles of captaincy, that would give the US their captains for the next 16 years. By then Stewart Hagestad, who at Seminole is playing in his third consecutive Walker Cup team, would be ready to assume the office that appears to be his for the asking.
If the USGA wanted to think outside the box they could consider Alan Bratton, the Oklahoma State University men’s golf coach since the 2011-12 season. The winner in 1994 of the Jack Nicklaus Award given to the nation’s top college golfer, Bratton played on the 1995 Walker Cup team captained by Downing Gray. Under Bratton’s leadership, Oklahoma State contends most seasons in the NCAA Championship and have won it once.
In GB&I, it is less clear-cut. “We’re running out of people who have Walker Cup experience,” Bonallack said. “Perhaps we should have a pro as captain?” That might sound heretical but it is in fact a view that is often heard in British and Irish golf. “It depends on the individual,” said Peter McEvoy, GB&I’s winning captain in 1999 and 2001. “I don’t think you could pay them. That would create a distinction between an amateur captain and a professional captain. You have to have the same rule for both, but it would work if you picked someone who had got to the end of their playing career but still retained an interest in the game. It would be someone who wanted to put something back into the game.”
The name of Ken Brown, the former professional who has made a name for himself as a television expert, was mentioned. “He’d be a very good choice, except I don’t think he played Walker Cup and that’s almost the first requirement,” McEvoy said. Another name mentioned was Rhys Davies, the Welshman who played in two Walker Cups and got very close to appearing in the 2010 Ryder Cup. Elsewhere Luke Donald, once the world No 1, declared an interest in captaining GB&I to my colleague Lewine Mair. And what about men like Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley or Graeme McDowell, all former Walker and Ryder Cuppers? McGinley and Harrington have, or soon will have, captained Europe in the Ryder Cup.
The thing about captaining a Walker Cup team, as former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson explained, is “it’s like puppies who are not just for Christmas. Captains are not just for the week of a Walker Cup. They have got to go to all the events, know the players, gain their respect, know who likes who, understand who would be good in a dressing room and so on.”
Nigel Edwards, who played in the Walker Cup four times as well as captaining it on three occasions, estimated he spent at least 50 days each year on Walker Cup matters when he was captain. “I was lucky,” Edwards said. “I worked in golf. It went hand-in-hand with my work as performance director first of Welsh and then English golf. It benefited all parties. There are very few who can commit to it. That is why mid-amateur golf has not taken off in the UK – because of people’s attitude to work. There aren’t many over here who can afford to take that sort of time off their work.”
It was suggested to Dawson that an outstanding candidate who was not from GB&I might be considered as a captain. There was a pause and then he said: “For me, and I stress for me because I don’t know what the current thinking at HQ is, that would be a stretch. It would be like the Americans having a Canadian captain.” Bonallack also dismissed that suggestion. “I can’t see that,” Sir Michael said. “It isn’t like a football club where you can have a Portuguese manager or something. I don’t think that would work.”
At Royal Porthcawl in 1995 Clive Brown, a Welshman, became one of the first men to captain a Walker Cup without having played in the match himself. It would go against his instincts to have a captain who was not British or Irish. Why? “It is GB&I,” he said. “It is such an historic occasion for GB&I players. We probably need to look harder for the right person, don’t we? In all the four home unions there must be people who have captained teams successfully at lower levels.”
It might be time for some blue-sky thinking on the eastern side of the Atlantic, too. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that.
“Now that the Ladies Golf Union has merged with the R&A, it can’t be long before women start to make their presence felt on R&A committees,” Brown pointed out. “A lady as a deputy chairman of a committee? I think that will happen pretty quickly if it hasn’t already. I wouldn’t rule out a (female) chairman of selectors. Then you’d be thinking of a man captaining a Curtis Cup team. And after that? A woman captain of a Walker Cup team. Who knows?”
Dozens of decisions have been made before, during and after a Walker Cup and this year’s, the 48th in the series, has continued this pattern. But no assessment of this competition can confine itself to facts alone. As Bernard Darwin, golf correspondent of The Times and himself a Walker Cup player, noted in his book Golf Between Two Wars, published in 1944:
Top: 1922 U.S. & British Walker Cup teams (front row, left to right) John Caven (GB), Robert Tyre Jones Jr. (US), Colin C. Alymer (GB), W.B. Torrence (GB), Rudolf E. Knepper (US), W. Willis Mackenzie (GB), Jesse Sweetser (US); back row, left to right: Chick Evans (US), Roger Wethered (GB), Francis Ouimet (US), Robert A. Gardner (US), William C. Fownes Jr. (US captain), Bernard Darwin (GB), Max R. Marston (US), Cyril J.H. Tolley (GB), Jesse Guilford (US) and C.V.L. Hooman (GB)