One of my favourite weekends in the golfing calendar is coming up – the Walker Cup, the biennial match between the best male amateurs from Great Britain & Ireland and the best from the United States. It is to be played this weekend at Royal Liverpool, a club and course rich with the heritage and history of the game. Because of an overcrowded diary I won’t be there but I will be following with an interest that has flourished and grown over the past number of years.
Back in 2003 I was commentating for the BBC at Ganton when Northern Ireland’s Garth McGimpsey led the home side against a talented American team. Two points adrift going into the final session of eight singles meant that a monumental effort was required by the GB&I team if they were to wrest the trophy from the visitors. The required effort was delivered with a total of 5.5 points and the narrowest of victories was achieved.
The hero of the hour was Welshman Nigel Edwards who holed the winning putt and halved his match against Lee Williams ensuring he remained unbeaten in his four matches. That rare beast nowadays, a career amateur, Edwards has overseen successful coaching and development programmes as performance director for England Golf and earlier this year he was appointed leader for Team GB golf in the Olympics in Tokyo next summer. He’s achieved many firsts in his life but I’m sure he never expected to be the first Welshman to book his place in the Olympics!
The next home match, in 2007, was at Royal County Down, where the poster boy was Rory McIlroy. It was the first opportunity many of us had to see at close quarters the jaunty young man who would command more media coverage and scrutiny than any other player – with the possible exception of one Mr Woods. Running my eye down the teams at Newcastle, however, revealed a monumental amount of talent on both sides. Consider these names, all of them instantly recognisable nowadays by golf fans: Dustin Johnson, Ricky Fowler, Webb Simpson, Danny Willett, Billy Horschel and Kyle Stanley. All proven winners, several of them with majors.
Royal Aberdeen in 2011 introduced us to a youngster called Jordan Spieth as well as the then No 1 amateur in the world Patrick Cantlay but I remember that match for another reason altogether. That first morning I was making my way back to the TV compound after commentating on one of the opening foursomes matches when I heard my fellow commentator, Paul Eales, mention that one of the GB&I players, Jack Senior, had his brother, a professional, caddying for him. My heart plummeted to my boots.
The previous evening I had read the conditions of competition prepared by the R&A and I knew that professionals were not allowed to caddy in the Walker Cup. By the time I had reached the compound Jack Senior and his partner Andy Sullivan were just closing out their match on the 17th. I informed our director who immediately got on to the R&A and there were a few hastily convened meetings during the turnaround between the morning and afternoon matches. It was obvious that a clanger had been dropped in the normally meticulous R&A preparations.
The GB&I captain, Nigel Edwards, he of 2003 fame, had asked weeks earlier if Senior’s brother could caddy and had been told yes – yet here in black and white it stated that professional golfers could not caddy. The severity of the situation was plain to see when the big chief of the R&A, Peter Dawson, came in front of camera to explain away the problem.
However, it was Jim Holtgrieve, the US captain, who saved the day and ensured that all was smoothed over. He refused to claim the match, which I believe would have been within his rights and graciously, and correctly, stated the match had been played in the best of spirits and he was happy for the result to stand as no advantage had been sought. All the same, Jack Senior had to find another caddy for the remainder of the match. And the final match score? GB&I 14, USA 12.The 2015 Walker Cup left me with a different memory. There was a small knot of spectators gathered around a lone figure on the practice ground at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s on the final practice day. This was my first sighting of Bryson DeChambeau, flat cap firmly in place and trademark high hands address position, reminiscent of the great Moe Norman’s action. He was intense, focused and silent, not interacting with the friends and family around him. I felt a little sorry for him. His team mates were all on the course, yet here he was bashing balls on the range, trying to find some key, some trigger, I thought. It’s tough to be at a big event and still be searching for your game at the eleventh hour, hence my sympathy. Well, my sympathy was certainly misplaced and definitely not needed! This was simply Bryson being Bryson, although at a slightly brisker pace in those days. Even then he was ploughing his own furrow.
Yes, I’ll certainly miss being at Hoylake and having the opportunity to see these great amateurs. It’s fun to speculate and wonder which, if any, of them will be a collector of titles, maybe even majors. Perhaps at this point we can even still identify with them a little – they are club members after all, not touring pros and they don’t usually have huge bank balances – yet! That’s in the future. Enjoy them now and we’ll see where their talent and passion take them.
[Do you recognise the lads at the top of the page? They’ve just helped win the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl. Both Irish. Jody Fanagan on the left with his mate Padraig Harrington, now Europe’s Ryder Cup captain.]