The Walker Cup has never gotten the proper attention it deserves, not in recent memory at any rate. It is doubtful if that will change later this month when it is held in northeast Scotland at Royal Aberdeen, the sixth oldest golf club in the world.
Increasingly, it seems that most national newspapers in the British Isles and many in the U.S. are interested only in professional golf.
“Oh, amateurs,” is the sneer. “No Tiger Woods.” That begs the retort that many competitors in the forthcoming biennial match between Great Britain and Ireland and the U.S. are playing better than Woods, who made five double-bogeys and found 20 bunkers and water four times in his first two rounds of last month’s PGA Championship in Atlanta.
Actually, Woods did play in the Walker Cup once. It was in 1995 at Royal Porthcawl, in South Wales. Great Britain and Ireland won. And Woods lost his singles on the first day to Gary Wolstenholme, a man 15 years older than he was who was a comfortable 75 yards shorter off the tee. It was back in the days when Woods could control neither his distance nor his accuracy with short irons.
He reached the 17th with a driver and a wedge in practice (the hole measures well over 500 yards and most members can’t reach it in two shots) and then he hooked a 9-iron well out of bounds on the 18th, the ball clattering against the old wooden clubhouse. Woods may want to forget that performance. Wolstenholme, on the other hand, wants to remember it. He has dined out on it ever since.
“But it’s not professional golf, is it? It is mainly kids, isn’t it?” That’s another often-heard sneer and, while it is true that the home team have in Rhys Pugh a young man who is not 18, it is also true that the U.S. include Nathan Smith, who is 33.
“It’s too one-sided. The Americans always win.” There is no denying that. If the U.S. win again this year, and with one of the strongest teams in recent memory, they are favoured to do so, they will have won the past four Walker Cups and six of the past 10. Fortunes rise and fall, rather like the stock market. If there is concern at the dominance by the U.S. who, in all, have won 36 of the 42 contests, then what about Europe’s record in the Ryder Cup – unbeaten in eight of the past 12 Ryder Cups.
If I had to choose between stroke play and match play then I would be guided by the words of Joe Carr, among others, who said: “Stroke play is a better test of golf but match play is a better test of character.” To me, match play versus stroke play is links golf versus inland golf, red wine versus white, walking versus riding in a buggy, carrying one’s clubs versus using a trolley, the right brain to the left, wooden tees versus plastic ones.
I have knocked around the world of golf for more than 30 years, acquiring a clear idea of what I don’t like: slow play, buggies and long putters. Covering more than 120 major championships and hundreds of other events in that time has also given me an idea of which I like the most. Among these, the Walker Cup reigns supreme. It is the best event in golf.
To me the Walker Cup combines the best of all worlds. It is steeped in history. It began in 1922, before the Ryder Cup. It is a team event in an individual sport, so watching the dynamics of self-centered, idiosyncratic, egotistical men as they play for their country or continent is fascinating. Do you see grown men cry in a Walker Cup? You bet you do.
The memory of Graeme McDowell’s victory over Hunter Mahan that gave Europe a one-point victory in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor last autumn will live long. It was exciting but was it any more exciting than Jim Milligan’s halve with Jay Sigel in the second-day’s singles of the 1989 Walker Cup match at Peachtree when Sigel led Milligan by two holes with two to play and Milligan’s brave halve helped GB&I achieve a first victory in the U.S. in this event (and only the third overall)?
The Walker Cup is physically bigger than a Ryder Cup and the event for which it is played is just as exciting, more intimate. There are massive grandstands at a Ryder Cup; not even fairway ropes at a Walker Cup. You can hear the conversation between player and caddie as they select a club. You can hear the sound of club on ball and watch the shape of the shot as it leaves the clubface. You can’t get much nearer to the action than that.