ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | It was only five months ago when Gordon Sargent, the recent McCormack Medal winner as the top-ranked amateur in the world, arrived at the Masters with enormous expectations.
The hype machine buzzed ferociously for the Vanderbilt sophomore, a prototypical modern golfer who smashes drives into oblivion and backs it up with stellar short-game touch. But the 2022 NCAA champion triple-bogeyed his third hole and shot 77-76, missing the cut by six strokes, a margin that he thought was embarrassing.
That moment was too big. But in arguably an even bigger moment over the weekend at the Old Course, Sargent delivered a 4-0 Walker Cup performance that will go down in the annals of the match’s illustrious history.
It started early Saturday morning as Sargent paired with Dylan Menante in the opening match to win the Americans’ only point of an otherwise dreadful foursomes session. Teeing off on even-numbered holes, Sargent used his prodigious drives to turn the momentum in a close match that sat all square with seven holes to play and winning, 3 and 2.
What happened in his ensuing three matches – all of which came down the 18th hole – was undoubtedly the difference in an epic American comeback victory that secured a fourth consecutive Walker Cup triumph.
"I don't think we really liked that GB&I roar the past couple days, so we decided we don't want to give them even a chance."
The U.S. was in disarray on Saturday afternoon by the time Sargent came to the par-4 17th 1 down to England’s Jack Bigham. The Americans were desperate to flip a match, and they got it when Sargent tied his game with a Road Hole par and then nearly aced his tee shot on the 18th hole.
“It looked like it might go in,” Sargent said of his tee shot. “I just kind of aimed left and hit a teed-down cut driver and hit it exactly how I wanted to, and it ended up like 25 feet past it and then two-putted for birdie.”
When Bigham couldn’t respond, it gave the Americans a point that looked even more important as the deficit grew to 7½-4½ by the end of day one.
The soft-spoken Sargent sounded dejected in his evening press conference, joining captain Mike McCoy and teammate Stewart Hagestad in a trio of thousand-yard stares that showed their degree of disappointment.
A Sunday charge would be needed, and Sargent had more in store.
In the Sunday morning foursomes session, he paired with fellow Alabama native Nick Dunlap to face the Scottish duo of 16-year-old Connor Graham and Calum Scott. Graham and Scott had driven a truck over Caleb Surratt and Ben James in the first four-ball session, and observers pointed out that this would be a vital moment for the U.S. Sargent and Dunlap were viewed as the top players of the American side and needed to deliver.
“We had the mindset that if we're paired together, we're not losing,” Sargent said.
After leading 2 up through 12, it looked as if they might lose. Sargent and Dunlap bogeyed No. 13 and double bogeyed No. 15 to fall to all square, needing a birdie at the 16th to regain a 1-up advantage that they carried to the final hole.
With both sides hitting their drives greenside and then putting from off the green, the GB&I team left itself inside 5 feet – on nearly the exact same line as Sargent’s remaining 8-foot birdie putt to win the match. Sargent drained it and gave a resounding fist pump, helping cut the three-point deficit to just one point by lunchtime.
“You never want to give your opponent chances, and I don't think we really liked that GB&I roar the past couple days, so we decided we don't want to give them even a chance,” Sargent said.
Then one more time, Sargent would need to close his match out in the town center with spectators hanging out of every balcony within sight.
With the Sunday singles session appearing to be a razor-thin margin as Sargent faced GB&I’s top player, John Gough, the pair headed to the 17th tee all square. The match had been nip and tuck all day, with no player able to get ahead by more than one hole. On the 15th green, Gough made a birdie to win the hole and then waved his arms wildly to ignite the crowd – a stark contrast to Sargent, who stayed stone-faced throughout the proceedings.
But Gough would hit his tee shot out of bounds into the Old Course Hotel garden, gifting Sargent a 1-up lead heading to the 18th tee. And, this being no surprise, Sargent judged his tee shot perfectly to put himself 30 feet right of the hole for eagle.
Sargent’s play had sucked all enthusiasm out of GB&I’s Walker Cup bid. His securing of three points on the 18th hole alone was vital to the U.S. winning.
Two putts later, he had secured a winning point that was a final dagger to the GB&I efforts. Chants of “U-S-A!” came from a small group of American fans, and Sargent finally showed the emotion he had been holding in all afternoon as he embraced Stewart Hagestad, Preston Summerhays and Nick Dunlap.
By that time, Sargent’s play had sucked all enthusiasm out of GB&I’s Walker Cup bid. His securing of three points on the 18th hole alone was vital to the U.S. winning. Had he lost at the home hole each time, the Americans would have lost, 13½-12½.
Sargent, of course, downplayed his contribution as any top amateur with media training would do.
“I wouldn't say that was the difference in winning the Walker Cup because I've got nine other teammates,” Sargent said, sounding almost upset at the notion.
But there is no denying that he came through in those moments, using his most dangerous skill to his advantage.
It might be a Swilcan Bridge too far to suggest that Sargent had doubters coming into this week, but he hadn’t necessarily played his best golf in meaningful spots. Aside from being low amateur in the U.S. Open, Sargent experienced the aforementioned Masters struggle, finished a distant 40th in the NCAA Championship, had a couple of mediocre PGA Tour starts and faltered in the round of 64 at the U.S. Amateur to Dunlap, who momentarily took the spotlight as amateur golf’s can’t-miss kid.
“I don't think it would be any different whether I was ranked No. 1 or like a thousand,” Sargent said when asked how good it felt to come through with four points.
But he’s not 1,000th in the world. He’s No. 1, and it comes with expectations.
At the Walker Cup, Sargent was the clear man of the match, and he proved his ceiling is as high as we all think it is.