The Walker Cup is heading back to the home of golf for the first time in 48 years.
If you love amateur golf, that sentence is like a flushed 2-iron stinger that can be felt in every bone.
The Old Course at St. Andrews was once a fixture for this historic biennial competition between the best amateurs that the United States and Great Britain & Ireland have to offer. From 1923 to 1975, the hallowed grounds hosted eight of a possible 13 times. Despite the lengthy hiatus that would follow, no venue has hosted more Walker Cups than St. Andrews.
And that is how it should be. The soul of the Walker Cup – the pinnacle of amateur golf – was born at St. Andrews on the backs of Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet, Bill Campbell, Michael Bonallack, Joe Carr and countless others. Their spirit and integrity, in the game’s most cherished setting, brought amateur golf to prominence and helped create a competition that was more about camaraderie and sportsmanship than winning.
You can be sure their collective presence will be felt on Saturday morning when the chilly Scottish September air hangs heavily around the first tee at the start of the 49th edition. The gallery – which won’t be confined to the outer perimeter of the property as is typically the case during Open Championships at St. Andrews – promises to be plentiful and enthusiastic. The television coverage, which was cut to scraps at Royal Liverpool in 2019 because of broadcasting expenses, plans to be substantial on both sides of the Atlantic. And the players, some of whom have never even stepped foot on a true links before this trip, will be experiencing nerves they may never re-create in their golf careers.
Quite frankly, this is as good as golf gets.
“This is their opportunity to perform on the biggest stage in amateur golf and have their name written alongside some of the greatest names in the history of the sport by winning the Walker Cup,” GB&I captain Stuart Wilson said. “There is arguably no more iconic venue in the world to achieve that feat than on the Old Course in St. Andrews.”
Wilson and his crew have a daunting task ahead of them if they are to be victorious and prevent the American brigade from winning a fourth consecutive Walker Cup.
The Walker Cup is always like a mismatch on paper – as evidenced by the Americans’ 38-9-1 overall record in the event – but it is particularly pronounced for this year’s match. All 10 of the American players are ranked within the top 18 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking. The USGA International Team Selection Committee passed on Cole Sherwood and Luke Clanton, two players who are ahead of the GB&I’s top-ranked player, world No. 13 John Gough.
There are six players on the GB&I squad ranked No. 70 or worse. For the 2021 match, the average ranking for each side was around 14th for the Americans and 68th for GB&I; this year, the gap has grown as the average American rank is eighth while GB&I’s average is a distant 87th.
For another critical difference that can be interpreted any way you wish, GB&I is quite a bit older. Despite having 16-year-old Scottish standout Connor Graham, believed to be the youngest player ever picked by the GB&I side in Walker Cup history, the team’s average age is just north of 22.
The Americans’ average age is only one year younger at 21, but four team members are still teenagers and only two players are 22 or older. Seven GB&I players are 22 or older.
From 1995 to 2003, GB&I won four of five matches to claim the only true momentum it has ever had in the Walker Cup. However, the Americans have won seven of the last nine editions, including the last three. Four of their last five wins have been convincingly, by five points or more.
And now the Americans are traveling across the Atlantic with the world’s top-ranked amateur (Gordon Sargent), the U.S. Amateur winner (Nick Dunlap) and young players such as Caleb Surratt and Ben James who are widely considered to be potential PGA Tour stars.
It would be fair to argue this is the best collection of American talent since the 2017 playing when Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Will Zalatoris and Maverick McNealy led the red, white and blue to a dominating victory at Los Angeles Country Club.
“They’re all proven winners,” U.S. captain Mike McCoy said. “They’ve all won. They’ve been on big stages. I feel this is really going to be a talented team. Only time will tell how talented, but I feel blessed that we’re going over there with the group we are.”
By the time you are reading this, the American contingent already will have flown to Scotland and played Dumbarnie and Kingsbarns, two modern Fife links within a short drive of St. Andrews. Starting today, five days before the Walker Cup starts, their work to understand the Old Course begins.
In tame conditions, the layout can be brought to its knees by such talented players who have the luxury of modern technology. Since 2000, each of the five Open Championship winners at St. Andrews has been 14-under par or better; and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, annually played around this time of year at the Old Course, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie, commonly gives up 20-under or better to its victor.
But that doesn’t matter much in match play. In fact, it only adds to the intrigue when there are so many “half-par” holes demanding to be won with birdies.
If the wind blows, the attack mode can switch to survival in a matter of moments. Bunkers that weren’t in play one day suddenly can be problems the next. That’s when local knowledge is brought to the forefront. GB&I will be well ahead in this experience factor, especially when a prominent player such as England’s Barclay Brown has competed at St. Andrews in major-championship conditions. Ireland’s Alex Maguire also won the St. Andrews Links Trophy at 21-under in June, in addition to GB&I team members Calum Scott (T3) of Scotland and Jack Bigham (T12) of England also playing well in that event at the Old Course.
It’s a worthy reminder that the Old Course doesn’t care about rankings. When the golf starts on Saturday, none of it will matter.
If GB&I can overcome this stacked American team on the ancient links, it will be a heroic feat sitting near the top of elite amateur golf lore. The pubs will be full, and the singing will be hearty.
If the U.S. side secures another Walker Cup, it will assert its dominance in what has been a glory age of American amateur golf. The pubs will – well, they will still be full.
With the Walker Cup returning to the game’s most iconic stage, history will be made.
GB&I players (from left) Connor Graham of Scotland, Liam Nolan of Ireland and John Gough of England have experience playing the Old Course.
Ross Parker, R&A via Getty Images