SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The roots for Jim Holtgrieve’s role as captain of the USA Walker Cup Team began decades ago and more than a thousand miles from the National Golf Links of America.
“I grew up playing St. Louis Country Club, another Charles Blair Macdonald course,” said Holtgrieve. “It’s still one of my favorite courses in the world, and it taught me a lot about learning to use every club and hit every shot.”
The National Golf Links is considered Macdonald’s master work, and a year after it opened in 1911, Macdonald took on the design of St. Louis Country Club. He did so at the behest of the club’s golf chairman, none other than George Herbert Walker, who would go on to become the president of the USGA and propose the International Challenge Match, which quickly became known as the Walker Cup Match. The 2013 Match is a return to its roots – the National hosted the inaugural event in 1922 for its only USGA championship.
Holtgrieve played in three Walker Cups, and this year marks his second stint as USA captain. Nigel Edwards of Wales will also reprise his role as captain for the Great Britain and Ireland side, which won the 2011 Match at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland, 14-12. Although the USA holds a 34-8-1 lead overall, the last dozen matches have been split evenly at six apiece as they prepare to square off at the National on Sept. 7-8.
“This course has fairways as wide as 60 yards,” said Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., USGA vice president and chairman of the Competition Committee. “There are plenty of risk-reward opportunities, and poorly executed shots will be punished. Not many changes were made, although there is a new tee on the 10th hole that restores the challenge of the drive zone there. Basically, we didn’t want to mess with the Mona Lisa – or trick it up.”
Holtgrieve has stressed from the start that the National is a second-shot course, and he expects that the Match will be decided to a great degree on the players’ short-game prowess. Edwards is inclined to agree, while noting that the team environment adds another important element.
“So many events now are centered on the individual,” said the four-time Walker Cup competitor. “Things are not always going to be done as you would as an individual, so they’ve got to be good players and have a great attitude. The players’ nerves are going to be at their rawest. The course will test every part of a player’s game, but especially the short game will come to the fore. If you can manage yourself well, you can really enjoy the experience.”
Having played in a combined seven Walker Cups and each captaining their sides in 2011, both men know they can only control so much of what happens in the two days of competition.
“The message I try to convey to them is to have fun,” said Holtgrieve, who has a combined 6-4 playing record in three competitions from 1979 through 1983. “It’s a great golf course to have fun on. I can tell you, though, that it’s nerve-racking to watch. My mother used to say that it was hard to watch me play… she was always over behind a tree.”
Added Edwards, who owns a 4-5-3 overall record in Walker Cups from 2001 through 2007: “When I received the call from Peter Dawson [about becoming captain], it was a bolt out of the blue because I was still playing a little bit. Royal Aberdeen was a great experience and it was wonderful to be part of a winning team – or any team for that matter – being supported by your teammates and your country. The Ryder Cup has shown us how special it is.”
Holtgrieve concurred. “If you have a chance to play for your country, you need to do it,” he said. “You can always go play for money. I want to win here, but as I have learned the history of the Walker Cup, it’s about taking 10 young men and giving them the experience of a lifetime and representing their country.”
Edwards is fully aware that the Match is not necessarily a bridge to professional stardom.
“Many of these players have gone on to Ryder Cup success,” he said, among them Colin Montgomerie, Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy on the GB&I side. “It’s a great part of the learning curve and the apprenticeship. But not all of them will go on to professional success; for some, this will be the pinnacle of their career.”
As they prepared to square off again, Holtgrieve made an observation about the unique nature of the National.
“The players are in for a treat – it’s not your typical American golf course. The first two holes being drivable par 4s is quite different,” he said. Then, to Edwards, “You’ll be telling all your players to try to drive No. 1, right, Nigel?”
“That’ll depend on the wind, won’t it, Jim?” Edwards responded.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.