Ed. Note: As the Walker Cup is played for the 48th time at Seminole Golf Club this weekend, we offer a remembrance – 50 years later – of the 1971 competition.
Read these words well and listen to them. They are heartfelt, the more so because they were written 40 years ago by Michael Bonallack, Britain’s greatest post-war amateur golfer, after he had played for and captained the Great Britain & Ireland team that won an unexpected victory over the US in the 1971 Walker Cup at St Andrews.
“For me, of course, winning at St Andrews was the last ambition. I had won all the championships; they no longer inspired me. But I wanted the Walker Cup because it had eluded us for so long and we had won it only once in all the years since it began in 1922. We all shared in it. I think we will be linked by it for the rest of our lives.”
It was GB&I’s first victory in the biennial match against the Americans for 33 years and it took place at St Andrews, the most famous golf course in the world, where GB&I had won the 1938 Walker Cup, their only previous victory. Little wonder the win moved Bonallack to tears. “It is right at the top of my list of achievements,” Bonallack said last week.
Bonallack succeeded Joe Carr, the Irishman, as the outstanding amateur golfer in Britain and Ireland, winning the Amateur Championship on five occasions between 1961 and 1970 and the English Amateur the same number of times between 1962 and 1968. He had played in seven previous Walker Cups and not won one. He had been a playing captain and that team had lost, too. For someone born in the British Isles, he had done just about everything there was to do in golf except play in or captain a winning Walker Cup team.
By the early ’70s, defeats to the Americans in the Walker Cup had become commonplace. The British knew it and so did the Americans. “Unlike a few of our other foreign escapades, the good old US of A does the kicking around in the Walker Cup,” Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in Sports Illustrated in his report of that Walker Cup. A US team member said: “The Walker Cup should be the biggest thing in amateur golf but, let’s face it, nobody cares. I guess we just win too much.”
But this US team was not as strong as it might have been. “We had some mid-amateurs who were simply not as good as Lanny Wadkins, Allen Miller, Tom Kite or Steve Melnyk,” Vinny Giles, a member of that team, said. “John Farquhar was a nice player. Bill Hyndman must have been in his fifties even then. Jim Gabrielson was a working guy. It was not our strongest ever team.” What’s more, GB&I was a strong mixture of youth and experience, a team Bonallack called, “as well balanced as any he had known to that point.”
The 1971 contest was the 50th anniversary of the first informal match just as this week’s at Seminole Golf Club is the 50th anniversary of the 1971 match. It was the seventh Walker Cup to be played at St Andrews and while many thought it would end in a convincing US victory, there were others who did not. Perhaps the chief one was the incomparable John Jacobs, who was the GB&I team’s coach.
“Technically we are as good as the Americans,” Jacobs said to members of the GB&I team as he made them watch the Americans on the practice ground. “Do the Americans swing any better than you?” Jacobs asked them, trying to boost their confidence. “Do they strike the ball any better?”
Humphreys had buckets of confidence. Had he not played the first two rounds of the previous year’s Open Championship with the great Jack Nicklaus? He had. Had he been put off his game? Not a bit. He survived the cut.
GB&I had a couple of secret weapons, two confident youngsters who were making their debut. One was Warren Humphreys, a 19-year-old Englishman; the other was Roddy Carr, 20, the son of the great Irish amateur, Joe (JB) Carr. These two men – whose combined ages of 39 was less than the age of the two oldest Americans, Bill Campbell. 48, and Bill Hyndman, 56 – contributed 5½ points out of a possible eight between them. “Warren was very confident,” Bonallack recalled. “I chose him as my foursomes partner (in the opening match) on the first day. That showed how much I thought of him.”
Humphreys was described in SI as, “a tousle-haired 19-year-old with sparkling teeth and a look remindful of Bobby Sherman, the teen dream.” Later he and Carr would both turn professional and travel and room together before leaving the paid ranks to seek more profitable ways of earning a living. To Carr, Humphreys was “Humperdinck,” after the singer Engelbert Humperdinck. Carr was “Rod the Rocket” to Simon Hobday, but to Humphreys he was simply Roddy.
Humphreys had buckets of confidence. Had he not played the first two rounds of the previous year’s Open Championship with the great Jack Nicklaus? He had. Had he been put off his game? Not a bit. He survived the cut. “He was charming to me,” Humphreys recalled recently of his encounter with Nicklaus. “I was too nervous to say anything much for the first six holes but after that we talked and he was very helpful and encouraging.”
Humphreys was designated by Bonallack, his playing partner, to hit the opening tee shot on the first day. No problem. After he and Bonallack had beaten Lanny Wadkins and Jim Simons by one hole, Humphreys described himself as “spitting feathers” when Bonallack dropped him from the second morning’s foursomes. Youthful confidence again.
But again, it might have been a tribute to Bonallack’s deft captaincy in telling Humphreys not to come to the course on the second morning but to rest around the hotel. Bonallack, the wise old warrior, knew that Humphreys’s exuberance, not to mention his putting, would be useful in the tense afternoon. And so it proved.
Against Melnyk, who would the next week win the Amateur at Carnoustie, Humphreys holed long putts on the 14th, one that was matched by Melnyk, and on the 15th, one that wasn’t. Melnyk won the 16th with a dextrous, 90-yard wedge shot, but lost the 17th to Humphreys’s 5 when his third did not clear the Road Hole bunker. Match to Humphreys by 2 and 1.
“He holed putts of 60, 40 and 30 feet on the back nine against me,” Melnyk recalled last week, “and I thought to myself, ‘well, he’s the better man today.’ I tipped my hat to him.”
Roddy Carr was the second of JB Carr’s six children, a young Irish golfer of considerable ability even if he was not so good as his father. “Roddy was just like Joe,” Bonallack said. “He had real flair. He could be very good or not so good.” Marty Carr, a brother of Roddy, explains his own golfing skills thus: “I’ve got the name but not the game.” Roddy Carr had both the name and the game.
At St Andrews, Roddy had the bonus of having Tip Anderson, the legendary St Andrews caddie who carried the Open bag of Arnold Palmer, an arrangement made by Joe Carr. “Tip was always there,” Carr recalled. “I never saw him and never heard him but whenever I needed him he was there. All I had to do was to put my hand out and Tip would put the correct club into it. We had a great sense of each other. It was beyond belief.”
On the 18th green in the first day’s foursomes against Steve Melnyk and Vinny Giles, Carr had a 2½-foot putt on the 18th.
“I was down on my haunches and Tip was hanging over me,” Carr said.
“I said: ‘left half, Tip?’
“He said: ‘right lip, Roddy.’
“I said: ‘are you sure, Tip?’
“He said: ‘absolutely sure.’
“Somehow I jerked the ball in, and we won our match 1-up.”
Bonallack made sure his team knew what had been written about them in the May 1971 issue of Golf World, the British monthly magazine. “Walker Cup – Britain heading for a hiding,” was the cover line referring to an article written by Ben Wright, the British journalist, who would later move to the US and become a member of the CBS commentary team at the Masters.
“I stupidly wrote … that if the home team won the 1971 match they could throw me in the Swilcan Burn, and when they came looking for me I fled to my hotel room,” Wright, now 88 and living in Flat Rock, Tennessee, wrote in an e-mail earlier this month. “I don’t remember much about the match, I regret to say, only that the Brits and Irish were heroic. Michael Bonallack told me later that I was their inspiration.”
Bonallack knew that links golf is best played along or near the ground, rarely more so than at the Old Course with its enormous greens and subtle run-offs. “I and a few others thought that the pitch and run was going to be important in the match,” Bonallack said, and so he had his team out practising this type of shot. “The Americans have their wedges which are not very good on very short grass. I believe in getting the putter out as soon one can.”
Melnyk, unusual among the Americans, thought likewise. “I said to my teammates, ‘You have to play the ball along the ground.’ Americans were not accustomed to that. I am one of those who believes that the worst putt from off a green is nearly always better than the worst chip.”
The highlight of the afternoon was Giles’s victory over Bonallack which swung on two extraordinary strokes by Giles on the penultimate hole.
There was a straw in the wind as to the outcome of the match when GB&I swept the first morning’s foursomes. Then they faced the inevitable fight back by the US in the afternoon singles. Carr, at one point two holes down to Hyndman and finding the American to be unconscionably slow, clawed his way back to halve his match and end the first day of his first Walker Cup match unbeaten. Immediately behind, Humphreys was losing to Gabrielson.
The highlight of the afternoon was Giles’s victory over Bonallack which swung on two extraordinary strokes by Giles on the penultimate hole. Here is Bonallack’s version: “We were all square on the 17th. Vinny’s second was in the Road bunker and mine was farther on, to the left of the green. I putted up to about 5 feet and then Vinny thinned his out of the bunker and onto the road over the green. He took a wedge from there and thinned that but it hit the flagstick and dropped into the hole. He won the hole. I can almost remember my language. I hope nobody heard me.”
Here is Giles’s version: “I did the most horrible thing to the now Sir Michael. I was behind the Road bunker on a tight lie and with the last roll of my ball it toppled off the green onto the road. In those days it was full of cinders and all sorts. From there I hit a sand wedge. It was hopeless. It struck the flagstick halfway up and dropped into the hole. It was on the right line, that is all I will say about it. It was 100 percent luck. And the next morning one of the local papers headlined their report: ‘A Most Dastardly Act.’ British golf writers would say it as it was, a piece of luck. American golf writers would say ‘Giles played an inspired shot.’ I didn’t and it wasn’t. It was pure luck.”
Sensing a rare victory, as many as 10,000 spectators travelled to St Andrews to watch the second day’s proceedings unfold. The Americans, 6½- 5½ ahead after the first day, widened their lead to 9-7 at lunchtime on the second with the eight singles remaining.
Bonallack lost to Lanny Wadkins in the top singles but after that things all went GB&I’s way, the home team winning the next six matches. The two young guns would not be silenced: as described, Humphreys defeated Melnyk on the 18th, and Carr ostentatiously holed a 30-foot putt on the 18th to make sure of victory and earn himself a total of 3½ points from a total of four. As the ball jumped into the hole, Carr threw his arms in the air and turned to embrace Joe, his father, who had raced across the green to congratulate the son who had just done in his first Walker Cup what Joe had failed to do in his 10 appearances.
Moments before Carr’s putt hit the hole, Dr. David Marsh, a bespectacled general practitioner from north-west England who had won the English Amateur the previous year, hit the 3-iron of his life on the 17th, the ball ending within a few feet of the hole. That stroke meant Marsh, having won the 16th against Hyndman to go 1-up in their game, would not lose the 17th and at worst would gain a half against his American opponent. A half was enough for GB&I to win the match.
Bonallack, stationed on the 18th tee, had been pacing nervously up and down. “From there I was able to see Roddy Carr’s putt on the 18th and David’s iron shot float down onto the 17th green,” Bonallack said. “I have never been so pleased in all my life. Finally, we had won the Walker Cup.”
We began with a quote by Bonallack. We shall end it with one by him, too.
“During the riotous celebrations that evening, I felt a kind of emptiness. It was a personal conclusion. I had climbed the mountain and there was nothing left to do. But it was an imperishable moment, too.”
An imperishable moment for Bonallack was an imperishable moment for Great Britain and Ireland and the Walker Cup, too.
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