On Keeping The Best American Amateurs Amateur
It was a simple two-letter word that all people have heard plenty of times throughout their lives. But that didn’t make it any less jarring. It was a simple “no,” which in most cases was followed by a “thanks” and some further explanation. But the “no” was the kicker, the word that sent a pang of angst through some quarters of the American Walker Cup community.
The source of that angst stems from the USGA announcement last fall of the players selected to attend the December 2018 Walker Cup practice session, held in south Florida. Five prominent American college golfers declined an invitation to participate because of plans to turn pro. A sixth player declined because of an academic conflict. That caused concern from some Walker Cup followers about the future of this storied international competition pitting a team of amateurs from the United States against a squad from Great Britain and Ireland, which this year will be staged on Sept. 7-8 at Royal Liverpool in England. And it has others more than a bit irritated.
It should be pointed out that, from a common-courtesy standpoint, the five players with professional plans were doing the right thing. If they knew they weren’t remaining amateurs, they should have declined the invitation and not taken a practice squad spot from other deserving players. It also should be noted that two of the players who declined had played in the 2017 Walker Cup at Los Angeles Country Club.
Officials at the USGA were not completely surprised. Those involved in selecting the invited players expected a significant number of declinations. However, the quantity and the quality of the players who declined is what concerns those in the American Walker Cup community. All five were among the top 15 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking at the time. Steve Smyers, past chairman of the USGA’s International Team Selection committee, believes there is “a message being sent by this generation of kids.”
That message: This biennial match is not what it used to be.
The Walker Cup originated in 1922 when international investment banker George Herbert Walker, who happened to be USGA president at the time (and grandfather and great-grandfather of the Presidents Bush, who are his namesakes), donated a trophy for a competition between American and British amateurs. Walker, one of the main forces behind the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, wanted the competition to help restore post-World War I allied relationships. That first match was played at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island. New York sportswriters dubbed the event the Walker Cup. The name stuck.
Today, as it was from the beginning, the match (and it has always been singular, not plural) is a two-day affair consisting of morning foursomes and afternoon singles.
No matter where their golf careers take them, Walker Cup team membership will be always be a highlight.
Over the years, most of our nation’s great amateurs – from Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones and Chick Evans to Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau – have played in the Walker Cup. Some, including Ouimet, Jones, Jay Sigel, Fred Ridley and both Charles and Danny Yates, have gone on to serve as captains. Most would tell you participating in the Walker Cup was one of the great honors in their golf life.
So, why are many of today’s young amateurs taking a hard pass? There are a host of factors. And they must be taken together.
The Sam Burns Case
The “thanks-but-no-thanks” turndown is not a new phenomenon. Over the past 20 years, as professional purses increased, the lure of lucre has superseded representing the United States in the Walker Cup. The most talented college-aged amateurs face a difficult decision: turn professional after the NCAA Championships, or roll the dice for a few more months, hoping to play well enough to be selected for the Walker Cup later in the summer.
Such was the choice facing LSU standout Sam Burns in 2017. The winner of the Jack Nicklaus Award as Division I national player of the year, Burns remained an amateur in hopes of playing on the 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team. But to the surprise of many, he was not selected to the team. Burns was bitter then and remains so. And the message from his being passed over continues to resonate among current college players.
Burns’ tale was a warning to future Walker Cup candidates: Waiting to turn professional might be too much of a gamble. The vagaries of Walker Cup selection, words such as “pedigree” and “campaign,” rub today’s young amateurs the wrong way. If they are going to make a decision that affects their lives, they want to the know the path they must follow to play for their country as an amateur.
Recognizing this, USGA officials altered the selection criteria last July. Starting this year, Walker Cup selections will take place in two stages. The first stage will include the top three ranked American players in the WAGR as of early August. The next stage will include the U.S. Amateur champion and the winner of the Mark H. McCormack Medal (the men’s WAGR No. 1, announced immediately after the U.S. Amateur), assuming those players are American and not already selected. The USGA International Team Selection Committee will select the remainder of the team.
It’s hard to overstate just how important this change is. In addition to being a huge step toward transparency, this policy is designed to encourage the best players to remain amateurs. Under this scenario, up to five amateurs – half of a 10-man team – can earn automatic selection.
The new policy wasn’t enough for the five players who declined the 2018 practice invitation because they had already set the wheels in motion to turn pro. But it could work in the future.
Agents aren’t concerned about the Walker Cup. It’s not their job. They have invested significant time and resources recruiting elite amateurs. For most, priority No. 1 is signing a player and ushering him into the professional ranks as quickly as possible. The next step is to sign an equipment contract and then to secure their client as many professional playing opportunities as possible to prepare for Web.com Tour qualifying.
There are dozens of PGA Tour and Web.com Tour starts available to young pros. Some tournament directors pride themselves in giving exemptions to youngsters. A few of the top collegians who turned professional early last summer made as many as six starts. Capitalizing on those opportunities can enable a newly minted pro to gain some small status, perhaps advancing them to the second stage of the Web.com Tour qualifying process. This is huge for aspiring PGA Tour professionals.
The Sam Burns situation, in the hands of some agents, is gold. Players and their families will be warned: Don’t wait. There is no Walker Cup guarantee, and you risk falling behind the guys who turn pro right away. This is your window of opportunity.
Few who were there will ever forget the image of a 20-year-old Rickie Fowler, draped in the American flag after posting a perfect 4-0 record at the 2009 Walker Cup at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia.
Most observers were aware that the Walker Cup was to be Fowler’s amateur swan song. He made his professional debut the next week. But not everyone knew that Fowler delayed that debut by several months specifically to play for his country at Merion that September. Having gone 3-1 at the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down in Ireland, he wanted one more drink from the Walker Cup fountain.
“This is the whole reason I stuck around,” he said at the time. “This is the most fun I have ever had in golf.”
The temporary delay in his pro career obviously did not hold Fowler back. His message to this generation of college players is clear: If you have enough talent and confidence, you will succeed at the next level regardless of when you turn professional. Why not play for your country?
On Playing For Country
Jim Holtgrieve was there to witness Fowler’s performance and flag waving at Merion.
Holtgrieve, who played on three U.S. Walker Cup teams (1979, 1981 and 1983), had recently been named captain of the 2011 squad. He would have a four-year run as captain, with his teams falling to Great Britain and Ireland in 2011 at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland and prevailing in 2013 at the National Golf Links of America.
During his two terms, Holtgrieve spoke to countless young men at tournaments and other gatherings. And his message was pointed: If you have a chance to play for your country, don’t say no. Time and again, the Air Force veteran was straightforward and consistent: There is no greater honor in any sport than playing for your country.
Fowler was Holtgrieve’s kind of guy. Nobody had to tell Fowler about the importance of the flag. He got it.
An Impractical Consideration
Oklahoma State men’s coach Alan Bratton played in the 1995 Walker Cup and continues to coach players who are likely to be Walker Cup candidates.
“The entire development process has been accelerated,” he said. “Kids are committing to schools at a younger age, and they are plotting a professional career before they even step on campus. Management companies are more aggressive. It’s the environment we live in.
“There is nowhere a player can go to for conflict-free advice. Agents are conflicted, coaches are conflicted. The kids really don’t have a clear understanding of the competitive environment in the pro game, and yet they are making one of the most important decisions of their life.”
Jim Ahern, Titleist’s director of player development administration and a close observer of all things Walker Cup, believes that college seniors are “over” amateur and college golf by the time of the NCAA Championships in the spring, if not before. This is especially true if the senior has already played in an international competition, be it the Walker Cup or the Arnold Palmer Cup, which features teams of male and female college players from the United States and the rest of the world.
According to Ahern, they are simply ready to move on. Waiting until September, when the Walker Cup is typically staged, is not a practical consideration.
Closely related to this is the PGA Tour success that some players who have left college early have enjoyed. Elite young amateurs have noted the trajectory of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and more recently, Cameron Champ. “Why not me?” goes the reasoning. Never mind that there are far more examples of players who left school early only to falter in the professional ranks.
If Ahern’s theory is accurate, future U.S. Walker Cup teams will be made up mostly of college underclassmen. It will be increasingly rare to see seniors delaying their professional careers to play in September.
The Arnold Palmer Cup
In 1997, the Golf Coaches Association of America created the Arnold Palmer Cup, an annual Ryder Cup-style competition featuring eight American college players against eight players from Great Britain and Ireland. It debuted with Palmer’s support, and the inaugural match was played at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge in June of that year. In 2002, the event expanded to include players representing all of Europe, and in 2013 the teams were expanded from eight to 10 players apiece. In 2018, the event added women, with the teams expanded to include 12 men and 12 women apiece. This year’s match is slated for June 7-9 at the Alotian Club in Arkansas.
The Palmer Cup enjoys financial support from both the USGA and the R&A as well as from corporate partners. It also offers an attractive perk for those who play. One male will receive an exemption into the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational the year following the competition and one female will receive an exemption into the Evian Championship, an LPGA major, in the same year as the competition.
The Palmer Cup lacks the long history and stature of the Walker Cup. But it has become a convenient tool in agents’ recruiting arsenal. Since it is typically played two or more months ahead of the Walker Cup, agents and college coaches will encourage players to play in the Palmer Cup in lieu of the Walker Cup, so as to check the “international competition” box.
An unintended consequence of the Palmer Cup’s creation has been to impinge on the Walker Cup. “It has become a real factor in the Walker Cup selection process,” Ahern observed.
There are those who believe that staging the Walker Cup in the spring, as will happen in 2021 at Seminole Golf Club in Florida, is a possible solution that would prompt America’s best players to compete. John “Spider” Miller, who captained the U.S. side in 2015 and ’17, is among those who share this belief, which he made clear during his two terms leading the American squad.
However, two powerful forces will forestall a permanent spring move.
First, the USGA’s partner in organizing the match, the R&A, likely has no interest in seeing the event move from its current timetable. Spring is the beginning of the GB&I summer season, and that season is needed to assemble the best team possible. The R&A views the Seminole match as a one-off, given the opportunity to play at a very special venue. Any effort to move the match permanently to the spring will be construed across the pond as the USGA looking for a competitive advantage.
Second, the college coaching community likely would push back. The last thing coaches want is an international event sanctioned by the USGA and R&A interfering with conference championships and NCAA regionals. And college coaches, paid to win tournaments, don’t want to risk a player becoming worn out or having to choose between playing for his college team and playing for his country.
USGA CEO Mike Davis offered a reminder: Walker Cup dates have moved around a lot over the years, from spring to summer to fall. “I am not sure we will ever find the perfect date,” Davis said.
Enter The PGA Tour
Last December, it was revealed that the PGA Tour was in discussions with the Golf Coaches Association of America about providing a path to professional golf for graduating college seniors and, perhaps, elite juniors who are planning to turn pro. It is anticipated that some modicum of status will be provided to elite players on the Web.com Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamerica, the Mackenzie Tour in Canada and PGA Tour China.
Tour executives realize that their most successful players are coming from the American college system – Spieth, Thomas and Champ, to name a few. They seem willing to invest in college golf in order to educate and indoctrinate future tour members. Providing tour access primarily to college seniors is good for the college game.
What it means for the Walker Cup, should this come to fruition, remains to be seen.
Whatever results from these discussions will not impact the 2019 Walker Cup, but subsequent competitions could well be affected. If a collegian earns access to the Web.com Tour, is he going to take it and turn pro right away? Or will he wait to play in one more national amateur championship and the Walker Cup, knowing that his status has been secured?
Details are being discussed and the tour has indicated that other stakeholders – including the USGA – will be consulted.
Education And Greater Transparency
The USGA needs to bend in two areas to insure the health of the Walker Cup. The first relates to education. Teaching young men about the Walker Cup – its history, legacy and importance to the game – needs to become a high priority at USGA headquarters.
This initiative cannot be focused on college players just during the 12 months preceding a Walker Cup. It needs to be ongoing and should begin in the junior ranks. A prominent collegiate player having only a vague awareness of the Walker Cup is a completely avoidable travesty.
The USGA needs to create even greater transparency in the selection process.
Outreach should cite the Walker Cup participation of current PGA Tour standouts such as Fowler, Spieth and Thomas, as well as recognizable older participants such as Curtis Strange, Phil Mickelson and Woods. The USGA also should engage the American Walker Cup Society, an unofficial confederation of past players and captains that gathers at each match. If asked, many will join an effort to spread the Walker Cup gospel.
The USGA took a step in this direction at the December practice session. Two-time Walker Cup team member Nicklaus spent a couple of hours with the 16 amateurs who attended, regaling them with stories from his time as a team member and speaking to the value of playing for country. Several other past players dropped in at various times, all preaching the Walker Cup gospel.
Bratton suggested running a practice squad session every year. In non-Walker Cup years, the USGA could invite the best 16 amateurs and educate them. They could hold it at an enticing place (such as Seminole or Cypress Point) and invite some Walker Cup alumni to attend.
Second, the USGA needs to create even greater transparency in the selection process. A prominent agent called the current selection process “cloak and dagger.” He’s not entirely wrong. Prospective players not knowing the road map or where they stand on it leads many to dismiss the Walker Cup altogether.
That lack of transparency sits in stark contrast to the Arnold Palmer Cup, where a point system is used to select part of the team. College players know where they stand. And they note the contrast.
The USGA also could take a page from its R&A partners. The R&A names a provisional Walker Cup squad. Players selected are told where the selectors and the captain will be all summer long. The roadmap is clear.
The USGA has resisted repeated calls for greater transparency for many reasons, a critical one being that on-course talent is just part of the equation in the selection process. On- and off-course comportment is carefully considered. There have been cases where talented amateurs have behaved badly. The USGA does not want to be locked into a problem player.
The USGA took a giant step with its two-segment selection process. But more is needed. At the very least, honest and frequent dialogue with viable candidates would go a long way toward avoiding the next Sam Burns situation.
What Is The Future?
It is entirely possible that not much will change.
The USGA may continue to tweak the process at the margins, and perhaps become more transparent, but in the end, the USGA will select 10 young men eager to represent America. Those amateurs will look back fondly on their time as Walker Cup players. And no matter where their golf careers take them, Walker Cup team membership always will be a highlight. They will be Walker Cuppers forever.
Those who choose not to play will never know the honor and joy they declined.
Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffmann celebrate after the U.S. clinched the 2009 Walker Cup Match at Merion Golf Club. Photo: John Mummert, Copyright USGA
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