What Just Happened in the Walker Cup?

By: Tony Dear

With a team that, on paper at least, looked a lot like the amateur equivalent of its 1981 Ryder Cup team, the USA really wasn't supposed to lose this weekend's Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland. The top-four ranked amateurs in the world - and six of the top 10 - formed the backbone of a formidable side that included the last two U.S. Amateur champions, a three-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, and a two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion.

Two of its members had won against the professionals on the 2011 Nationwide Tour, and then there was the game's undisputed No. 1 amateur golfer who finished inside the top-25 at four events on this year's PGA Tour schedule, including the U.S. Open where he wound up tied for 21st and the Travelers Championship, where he shot a second-round 60.

No matter how strong the opposition, this American outfit was surely destined for a famous victory, a landslide perhaps, a result as lopsided as the 16-9 victory it recorded at Merion two years ago, or the even more devastating 18-6 at Quaker Ridge in 1997, or 19-5 at Interlachen four years before that.

And yet it lost. It lost for the first time since 2003 and for only the eighth time in 43 Walker Cups. It lost by two points to a team boasting its share of pedigree - Irish and English Amateur Championship winners here, a Scottish Strokeplay Championship winner there, this year's Hampshire Salver champion, a Lytham Trophy winner, a New South Wales Amateur champion and the winner of this year's South African Amateur - but nothing like the star power of its opposition. In fact, Great Britain and Ireland had just two players in the world's top 10, only one of which you ever heard of and that by virtue of the fact he shared the first-round lead in this year's Open Championship.

The 5-under-par 65 that England's 20-year-old Tom Lewis shot in the company of Tom Watson at Royal St. George's and his eventual tie for 30th gave the Welwyn man unofficial team leadership status. Although Lewis, who will now turn professional, played well enough, securing one and a half points, he, like most of his teammates, was overshadowed by the youngest player on either side - 17-year-old Rhys Pugh of Wales, who won all three matches he played.

After sitting out the first morning's foursomes, the 2010 Peter McEvoy Trophy winner and 2011 Irish Open Amateur champion beat Patrick Rodgers 2 & 1 in the afternoon singles despite being 3-down through seven holes. He teamed with Scotland's James Bryne on Sunday morning to thrash the highly-regarded duo of Patrick Cantlay (world No. 1) and Chris Williams (No. 10) 5 & 3 in foursomes, and then upset newly-crowned U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft 2 & 1 in the afternoon.

Pugh's performances may not have come as a surprise to GB&I captain and fellow Welshman, Nigel Edwards, nor his coach David Llewellyn, who partnered with Ian Woosnam to World Cup victory in 1987. And the teenager's new mentor Fred Warren, head golf coach at East Tennessee State where Pugh began his undergraduate studies two weeks ago and where he joins four other British golfers on the school's eight-man squad, will no doubt have enjoyed watching his new recruit's impressive show.

Pugh was one of just three GB&I members with experience in American college golf (technically, Pugh doesn't have experience of college golf yet, having missed the Buccaneers' first outing of the year to play in the Walker Cup).

Scotland's Michael Stewart, who made it to match-play at this year's U.S. Amateur and won two and a half points over the weekend, also attended East Tennessee State, where he played for just two years before returning to Troon in order to concentrate solely on golf (Wales's Rhys Davies, now on the European Tour, also played for Warren at ETSU, and Rory McIlroy signed up before opting to decline a scholarship and turn professional). Byrne, meanwhile, played four years at Arizona State before earning a Marketing degree in May.

No doubt the U.S. college golf system, which the entire American team (except Jordan Spieth and Patrick Rodgers, who will likely make their college debuts - for Texas and Stanford, respectively - at this week's Olympia Fields Invitational in Chicago) currently has or has had experience in, will now come under close scrutiny after how a group of its finest products could be beaten by a team that probably enjoys less media exposure - even in its own part of the world - and which doesn't benefit from quite the same standard of practice facilities.

The issue of how appropriate a steady diet of over-watered, tree-lined courses played in mostly windless, sunny conditions is for golfers looking to compete in various environments and surroundings on the world stage may also arise. And the shout of "too many stroke-play events" will likely go up too.

Both arguments probably have some merit. But both tend to ignore the now continuous flow of world-class players coming out of Great Britain and Ireland, players who will surely one day compete for the same major titles as Cantlay, Rodgers, Spieth, Peter Uihlein, Harris English, et al.

GB&I captain Nigel Edwards also mentioned the effect his and his team's preparation had on the outcome. Talent and preparation certainly played their parts. But what Pugh's spirited comeback against Rodgers on Saturday afternoon, Jack Senior's winning birdie on the 18th against Nathan Smith to halve their Sunday singles, and Steven Brown's winning four on the same hole in his match against Blayne Barber that clinched the Cup, prove beyond a doubt that determination is every bit as important.

And this Great Britain and Ireland team was very determined.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.