The calendar has turned, and 2011 is a Walker Cup year. The U.S. squad will attempt to defend its 2009 title at Royal Aberdeen in Northeast Scotland in September. Overall, the U.S. leads this biennial series 34-7-1; however, since 1989, the U.S. margin is just 6-5.
In mid-December, Captain Nigel Edwards gathered his crew of hopefuls for the GB&I squad at Portmarnock for a two-day practice session. The highlight of the gathering was a talk by three-time major champion Padraig Harrington. Harrington, a three-time Walker Cupper in the 1990s, provided advice and insight into match play strategy.
Edwards brings considerable experience to his task, having played in four Walker Cup matches. He claimed the winning point the last time the GB&I squad prevailed, in 2003 at Ganton GC. His experience will be needed, as just one of the candidates has Walker Cup experience – Sunningdale’s Stiggy Hodgson. Edwards plans another practice session in May at Royal Aberdeen.
Originally, 23 players were named to the preliminary GB&I Walker Cup team, but only 16 were at Portmarnock. James Byrne and Rhys Enoch had exam conflicts, Laurie Canter played in the South African Open, and Matthew Nixon, Chris Lloyd, and Matthew Southgate turned professional after the European Tour School. Alastair Jones was in a car accident just before the session and was unable to attend; he is in fine form now.
This past week, U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve put 16 players through their paces at Old Memorial GC near Tampa, Fla. Unlike Edwards, Holtgrieve potentially has three team members with Walker Cup experience: Nathan Smith, Peter Uihlein, and Bud Cauley were all members of the winning team at Merion in 2009.
Holtgrieve, a three-time Walker Cupper himself, said, “The session went extremely well. I was overwhelmed by the talent these players have, and I was completely overwhelmed by the heart they have.” Steve Smyers, USGA Chairman of International Team Selection, said that much of the session was about introducing the Walker Cup experience to the first timers. To that end, two-time captain Fred Ridley, who played on the victorious 1977 team, spoke at a dinner about his experiences in this intense international amateur competition.
Next up on the road to Aberdeen: as many as 20 of the 32 players that participated in the respective practice sessions will play in the Jones Cup at Sea Island in early February. Holtgrieve will attend the tournament, but Edwards has a conflict and will not be in attendance.
There was a change at the top of the World Amateur Golf Ranking over the holidays, as No. 2 David Chung supplanted Peter Uihlein, who held the top spot since his U.S. Amateur triumph over Chung last August.
Curiously, Chung advanced without so much as picking up a club. Uihlein successfully defended his Dixie Amateur title right before Christmas, but because the event was downgraded by the WAGR system, he won fewer points for his defense than he won in 2009. As a result, his total points accumulation actually dropped, and Chung passed him by nine points.
Uihlein’s Dixie Amateur win marked the first time a champion has defended since Hal Sutton did so in 1978-79. Uihlien has built quite a Florida resume, having won the Dixie twice, as well as the Florida Azalea Amateur, the New Year’s Invitational, the St. Augustine Amateur, and the Terra Cotta Amateur.
Speaking of the WAGR, the final list of tournament strength rankings for 2010 is now available (click here). The tournament with the strongest field, outside of the four major regional amateur championships? The Western Amateur, played at a soggy Skokie CC outside Chicago last August. Interestingly, two of the top 10 events will not be played in 2011: the World Amateur Team Championship (contested every four years) and the Ping/Golfweek preview (cancelled due to golf course access issues).
The passing of standout amateur Billy Joe Patton reminds me that there once was something called a “career amateur,” and that these guys could compete from time to time at the highest levels of the game. In days gone by, amateurs like Patton, Charlie Coe, and Harvie Ward would be invited to The Masters and expect to contend. Five-time Walker Cupper Patton made a run at the 1954 Masters before finishing third. Coe played in 19 Masters, six more than Patton, and finished second in 1961. He was low amateur a record six times. Ward played in 11 Masters, and he recorded two top-10 finishes, including fourth in 1957. Sadly, in the global game of golf today, there really isn’t a career amateur who could contend at The Masters or any other major championship. The invitations extended to amateurs at The Masters, while an important part of what Augusta National stands for, is largely ceremonial in nature.
The ever classy David Fay retired from the USGA exactly the way one would expect: quietly, and with little fanfare. Fay is one of the most liked people in the game, and his contributions to the USGA are numerous and significant. He leaves big shoes to fill. And don’t be surprised if he turns up somewhere else in sport.