When Harris English was 12, he took a 4-hour trip across Georgia and found a dream.
He had played basketball and seen the Olympics on TV, but never considered that golf could be played with teammates representing their country. He had never seen players in matching golf shirts with the American flag.
At Sea Island’s Ocean Forest Golf Club, English watched the United States of America’s 10 best male amateur golfers in the Walker Cup Match.
Even though Great Britain and Ireland won that year (2001), the atmosphere inspired English to make the USA Team one day. His quest would lead him to another team in his state – the University of Georgia Bulldogs, the flagship college in the backyard of legendary amateur Bob Jones.
The University of Georgia program has produced so many Walker Cup players that it has become something of a farm club for this prestigious biennial international team competition.
This coming weekend at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Scotland, English and Russell Henley will be the latest Bulldogs to face Great Britain and Ireland.
In 2009, fellow Bulldogs Brian Harman and Adam Mitchell helped the USA win at Merion Golf Club.
Before that, the Bulldogs on the Walker Cup roster included Chris Kirk (2007 at Royal County Down), Harman (2005 at Chicago Golf Club), and Erik Compton and Nick Cassini (2001 at Ocean Forest). Other notable Georgia players to play in the Match include Franklin Langham, Allen Miller and two-time USGA champion Marvin “Vinny” Giles. According to its athletic department, the University of Georgia has sent 15 players to the Walker Cup, though one of them, George Hamer Jr., was a reserve for the 1947 Match).
|USA Walker Cup Players By College (Since 1961)
|Oklahoma State University (19)
Wake Forest University (16)
University of Georgia (13)
University of Florida (9)
University of Houston (6)
Stanford University (6)
University of Southern California (6)
Clemson University (6)
Arizona State University (5)
Georgia Tech (5)
University of North Carolina (5)
University of Texas (5)
“Some coaches might only have one Walker Cup player in their lifetime,” said Chris Haack, the Georgia coach who since taking over in 1996 has had seven selections. “It’s a huge thing for these guys and there’s nothing like being able to represent your school and extend that to represent your country.”
Haack’s program operates a de facto succession plan for the Walker Cup. Golfers transfer their knowledge, mentor their replacements and create a culture of expectation that younger players will eventually represent their country, too.
A State Influenced By Bob Jones
Danny Yates, 61, of Atlanta, has long memories of both the Walker Cup and the University of Georgia.
A 1972 Georgia graduate, Yates played in the 1989 and 1993 Walker Cup Matches, captained in 1999 and 2001 and assisted in 2003.
Yates, the 1992 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, noted that Georgia’s support of the Walker Cup was tested in 1979 when the NCAA, which governs college golf, “tried to set up a roadblock for Griff Moody to play in the Walker Cup.”
“Dick Copas, who coached at UGA for many years, said to Griff, ‘You go over to the Walker Cup. It’s more important than playing for UGA,’ ”Yates said. “He understood that playing for your country is an experience that everyone who does it cherishes.”
Located in Athens, the university is only 80 miles from Augusta, where nine-time USGA champion Jones founded Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters. That major is one of the most prestigious invitations for any golfer, and especially for the few amateurs picked each year. For decades, the most recent Walker Cup participants received a Masters invitation. That ended in 1989 when the qualifications were changed by the club.
In Thomasville, 250 miles to the south, Harris English was learning all this from a young age.
“Being from Georgia, where Bob Jones was from, and the Masters and all the tradition that goes along with golf in the Southeast, that’s what we grew up talking about,” said Harris’ father, Ben English.
To The Walker Cup Through Athens Teammates
For Harris English, the path to the Walker Cup almost seemed predestined to take him through Athens. His father played basketball at UGA, and lived in the same athletic dorm, McWhorter Hall, as future PGA Tour players Tim Simpson and Chip Beck.
“We’ve got red and black in our veins,” said Ben English of the college colors.
After attending the Walker Cup at Sea Island, Harris English attended Baylor School, a boarding school in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his golf coach, King Oehmig, was the son of 1977 Walker Cup captain and past USGA Senior Amateur champion Lewis Oehmig.
“He showed me books from his dad, and told me stories of going to the Walker Cup and how special it was, that it was an experience you’d never forget,” English said. “He told me with a lot of hard work and dedication, I could make it.”
English and Henley, both now 22, were born three months apart and arrived in Athens together, having pushed one another since they were junior golfers playing in tournaments in south Georgia and beyond. Henley’s hometown of Macon is 160 miles north of English’s.
The two roomed together and picked up the nicknames Harry (short for Harris) and Rex (because Henley is like a feisty little dog). Their coach calls them his Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, former University of Texas stars who played in Austin at the same time.
“Russell made me the player I am today,” English said. “We are great friends and like playing together, but we’re also competitive with each other. It’s a friendly rivalry.”
“We would tell each other that we’d make the Walker Cup together,” Henley said. “I’m not surprised he made it. He’s always been a great player, and I’m happy we’re both part of it.”
Teeing Off With Walker Cup Experience
Constant exposure to golfers who had already attained the goal of playing for the USA nurtured the teammates’ rivalry and their shared quest.
As sophomores at Georgia, English and Henley looked up to seniors Brian Harman and Adam Mitchell, who played on the winning USA Walker Cup Team at Merion in 2009.
“It was an inspiration to see them, and an inspiration that maybe I could do that,” said English.
“Watching Adam and Brian drove me to try to make it,” Henley said. “There are so many good players on our team that it’s definitely humbling.”
Henley’s other mentors include Lucas Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion who went to Clemson University (75 miles from UGA) and played in that 2001 Walker Cup that Harris attended.
“I could have made the Walker Cup by going somewhere else to college, but not on every college team do you get to play with Walker Cuppers every day,” said Adam Mitchell, who at the 2009 Walker Cup paired with Harman to win a foursomes (alternate-shot) match in the USA’s lopsided victory.
“I got to do that for four years at UGA, and it was definitely a big help in learning what I needed to do to get better. When I did make it, I got calls from past Walker Cuppers, and that’s part of what makes it so cool.”
Erik Compton, a member of the 2001 USA Team, said the UGA program supported his decision to stay an amateur, bucking the pressure to go pro as early as possible. He pointed out that both Henley and English have won on the Nationwide Tour as amateurs, and since graduating from UGA in May, have remained amateurs despite temptations to turn pro until after the Walker Cup concludes.
UGA “really values that,” Compton said. “It prepares you to play at the highest level of golf, and in many aspects, its players are ready to turn pro before graduating.”
An important principle for the Georgia program is the equality among players, including those who do not make the traveling team, and a balanced approach to college and life. It’s not a golf factory.
“Coach Haack doesn’t wear them out with win, win, win,” Ben English said. “He allows them to develop as young men and find out who they are and what life is going to give them.”
That 2009 Georgia team of four Walker Cup players (Harman, Mitchell, Henley and English) was ranked No. 1 going into the NCAA Championship, buttheir match play skills did not survive the revived format at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio.
For Georgia coach Haack, the Walker Cup spurs his players to sharpen their games, which helps them win college tournaments.
“The Walker Cup is a huge deal, because for our players to make the Walker Cup Team is one of those pinnacles of amateur golf,” Haack said. “Any time a player gets picked, he is representing our whole team and university, not just his country. It gives the entire University of Georgia a reason to root for them more.”
Freelance writer Michelle Hiskey is based in Decatur, Ga., and is a former collegiate golfer at Duke University who competed in USGA amateur championships. She has previously written for USGA websites.