ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND l No one close to the amateur game could recall an American Walker Cup team with two recent high school graduates on it. So the only question anyone had about the heavily favored U.S. team Jim Holtgrieve took to Scotland was how the two kids – 19-year-old Patrick Rodgers and 18-year-old Jordan Spieth – would perform.
Spieth and Rodgers are the No. 2 and 3 ranked players in the world, respectively, very skilled with impressive résumés. But the Walker Cup on foreign soil would be the biggest stage they had ever performed on.
University of Texas-bound Spieth is a two-time U.S. Junior champion who played his way onto the team with strong August outings at the Western Amateur and the U.S. Amateur. Rodgers, soon to enroll at Stanford, had a strong summer season highlighted by a win at the Porter Cup, and was selected for the team in the second wave of choices.
Of the two, it was expected that Spieth would have an easier adjustment. After all, he had twice made the cut in a PGA Tour event. But playing in front of adoring Texans is slightly different than playing for your flag in front of partisan Scotsmen.
Hoping to ride experience to an early lead, Holtgrieve sat the two youngsters during the Saturday morning foursomes, a move he said he didn’t relish. Holtgrieve said he thought all 10 players should play, rather than eight. Unfortunately, the captain’s ploy didn’t work, and the U.S. was shocked Saturday morning, losing 3-1 and setting the tone for a long weekend for the American lads.
In wildly changing weather conditions, Spieth was solid in his Saturday afternoon debut, building a 4-up lead after 11 holes over Jack Senior and coasting home. He may have gotten a hand from a small controversy involving Senior’s caddie in the morning foursomes – Senior’s brother, a professional, was on the bag, in violation of Walker Cup rules. The dust-up ended quickly, but after working with his sibling all week long, Senior had to adjust to a new bag man in the afternoon.
Rodgers got a rude introduction to international match play Saturday afternoon. After making five birdies in the first five holes and six in the first seven, he took his foot off the pedal and let another kid, 17-year-old Welshman Rhys Pugh, back in the game. Rodgers played holes nine through 15 in 5-over par, and when Pugh birdied the 16th, he was dormie two and closed Rodgers out on No. 17.
Holtgrieve surprised many on Sunday morning when he not only paired the two youngsters together for foursomes, he sent them out first, despite trailing 7-5 after the first day. In very windy conditions, Spieth and Rodgers fell behind Tom Lewis and Michael Stewart quickly. After a disastrous triple-bogey on 12, they found themselves 4-down with six to play. With Holtgrieve walking the entire back nine with them, the kids showed moxie by patiently digging their way out of a huge hole. Spieth rolled in a 15-footer on the 18th, letting out a rare American roar and winning the hole and a half point.
“We never gave up,” said Rodgers. “I knew we just needed to make pars.” Indeed, they finished with four consecutive pars to salvage the half point.
Spieth drew Andy Sullivan in the afternoon singles, going out second. He turned with a 3-up lead after four front-side birdies, but by the 12th, Sullivan had squared the match. Spieth birdied 13, and after Sullivan doubled the 16th, the match was Spieth’s, 3 and 2. Spieth was really the lone bright spot surprise for the losing side, leaving him tied with World No. 1 amateur Patrick Cantlay for most points (2.5) by an American.
Rodgers trailed Stewart for most of the round in his singles match, even though he made four birdies on the front side. He would make none on the back nine, and Stewart went dormie three on 15 when Rodgers missed a short par putt. Stewart closed him out on the next hole with a routine par.
“I just wasn’t sharp,” Rodgers said of his play all weekend. “The conditions were very difficult, and I wasn’t able to adjust. I learned a lot over here.”
In the end, the questions that needed answering had little to do with the youngsters, and everything to do with the riddle that is foursomes golf for Americans, and with the U.S.’s inability to manage the winds of the northeastern Scottish coast. The GB&I team, perhaps a little hungrier than the American squad, excelled in foursomes and managed the wind well enough to win.
As for Spieth and Rodgers, they have stated their intention to finish college, as has Cantlay, just a year older. Look for these three to mix it up frequently over the next three or four summers. And look for them to be the backbone of the team that Holtgrieve, expected to take another turn as U.S. captain, will take to the National Golf Links to try to win back the Cup in 2013.