ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | By Saturday evening, with a golden sunset illuminating each bump and slope the Old Course has to offer, the volume in the American team room fell to that of a funeral.
Overwhelming favorites to begin the week, the U.S. side – considered amongst the most talented American contingents in recent memory – had been outclassed. They lost the morning foursomes session, 3-1, quickly facing a deficit no team had come back from since half-points were first awarded for tied matches in 1971. Then it got worse in the afternoon as the Americans fell further behind, 7½--4½. It was the largest day one deficit the U.S. had faced in 34 years.
How could this be happening to this team? Great Britain and Ireland had an average world ranking of 88th at the beginning of the week. The American’s average was eighth. GB&I had played with tremendous heart in defending the game’s most sacred cathedral, but the U.S. was still supposed to win.
Captain Mike McCoy went around to each player and asked for his input. He wanted to know who was hurt. He wanted to know what the players thought they should do. As if the team needed additional motivation, Tiger Woods sent the group an encouraging text message. But it would take more than talking about a historic comeback. They had to execute a game plan.
The consensus was clear: it was time to put the pairings in a blender and get the best players possible on the course. One of those players was supposed to be Stewart Hagestad, the 32-year-old mid-am playing in his fourth and likely final Walker Cup. At the opening ceremonies, he admitted to crying as he thought about the match, St. Andrews and everything golf had meant to him in his life.
But Hagestad, to McCoy’s surprise, voted himself out in favor of better foursomes players.
From there, the pairings started to come together.
“The leader in the room was Stewart, and he stepped up and just said, ‘Look, I'm not a great foursomes player, so I'm going to sit,’” McCoy recalled. “That was pretty gracious on his part because he had won [his singles] match. I was planning on using him because he was playing so well.
“We took a chance. We knew we needed a good morning to get back in the match. It was really just pretty straightforward. The guys really demanded it, frankly. The guys demanded it. They didn't want people out there playing just to get their turn. They wanted the best teams on the golf course.”
What followed was a rally worthy of a leading position in Walker Cup lore. The Americans took three points on Sunday morning and then stormed back during Sunday singles to defeat GB&I, 14½-11½. It is the fourth straight U.S. victory and the team’s eighth in the last 10 Walker Cups, a dominating run matching the wide talent gap present between the two sides that have been playing since 1922.
For as melancholic as the U.S. team room was on Saturday night, it was the complete opposite by Sunday evening as it became apparent the Americans’ 7-3 singles-session victory would be enough to win the 49th edition of the Walker Cup with room to spare.
Players jumped in a huddle with a group of 16 red-jacketed American fans who traveled from Chicago as part of a 20-year high school hockey team reunion. Teammates embraced one another as if they had each separately won a major championship together. David Ford, who fought through injury to secure the winning point, sat with the media and asked Caleb Surratt a question about his table tennis prowess, which strangely led to Ben James giving a graphic description of how terrible salad tastes, leading the rest of the American team to burst into an uproaring laughter.
A long, memorable, tiring week had ended with everything they hoped for. Gratitude and joy collided.
“It's a pretty good feeling,” McCoy said, the emotion becoming visible in his face. “We had a great day, and it was these fantastic players. They're the ones who did it.”
It all played out in storybook fashion.
The setting could not have been more fitting. With the Old Course hosting its first Walker Cup since 1975, the weather was spectacularly warm and sunny throughout the week. The town of St. Andrews, aflame even further because it was student move-in week at the local university, was buzzing endlessly.
There were 14,320 enthusiastic spectators who came through the gates to watch the Walker Cup, and they scattered widely throughout the home of golf. On nearly every tee shot, players had to wait for hundreds of gallery members to clear because they had encircled the previous green.
Those fans – at least 80 percent in favor of GB&I but still remarkably courteous to the American players – had plenty to cheer about on Saturday during a relatively calm day with little wind. GB&I dropped the opening match but won the next three, including the final two matches on the 18th hole. American Preston Summerhays missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the last hole that would have halved his match, and 15 minutes later GB&I’s Alex Maguire converted a 12-foot birdie putt to secure a victory in his match. That sequence turned what could have been a tied contest into a commanding 3-1 lead.
GB&I looked even better Saturday afternoon. Its best player, John Gough, trounced Nick Dunlap, the U.S. Amateur winner, 6 and 5. GB&I made three consecutive birdies on the 18th hole in a string of matches that helped extend its lead to three points – with another foursomes session, usually GB&I’s preferred format, upcoming.
“When you play as much links golf as we do, you know that you can't trust anything on a links course,” Gough said on Saturday night. “It changes every day, every hole really.”
It changed when the players woke up on Sunday. Not only did the Americans come out with new pairings while GB&I stayed the same, but the wind was immediately thrashing early in the morning, getting well above 20 mph. Mainly a crosswind, some believed the tougher conditions would accentuate the perceived advantage the U.S. had from a ball-striking perspective.
“I felt like we might have an edge if it really came down to some certain skills,” McCoy said. “Not a big edge, but I was confident that these guys could play in any conditions.”
Momentum swung. Sargent, who would be the only undefeated player in the match at 4-0, made a massive putt on the 18th green to secure a victory alongside Nick Dunlap, and the Americans began their climb out of a daunting hole.
Early in the Sunday singles, the board was painted red. An unsettled feeling grew over the crowd, and American confidence permeated throughout an Old Course that was hearing far fewer roars than it had 24 hours earlier.
In addition to Sargent, the U.S. side owes Caleb Surratt a ton of credit. He not only went 3-1 for the match but was put in the lead position for three consecutive sessions – the last three sessions – and won each time. The players all said he emerged as a leader for the team. His foursomes teammate, James, even remarked that his hands were still stinging from the intensity of Surratt’s high-fives.
His efforts made the comeback seem more probable than not.
“It was just an opportunity you dream of since you were a kid,” Surratt said.
Despite the projected final score being extremely close for much of the afternoon, the Americans slowly swallowed GB&I’s hopes. Dunlap erased a late 3-down deficit to halve his match with Barclay Brown, the first moment where it became clear the U.S. was not going to be denied. Hagestad beat 16-year-old Connor Graham in the third match, and Summerhays raced past James Ashfield in the fifth match.
Gough, tied with Sargent on the 17th tee, sent any hopes of a GB&I win into the ether when he sprayed his tee shot out-of-bounds into the Old Course Hotel garden. The rest was a formality, and the celebration was on.
“It's certainly the pinnacle of my golfing life,” McCoy said.
To those who were there to witness it, the 49th playing of the Walker Cup will never be forgotten.
Top: The Americans had to work hard to rally and fulfil expectations as heavy favorites.
chris keane, usga