SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, owns a world-class sardonic streak, and one of his favorite ways to display it is to give unsuspecting friends and fellow golfers a little golf history quiz, if the situation calls for it.
For instance, he once engaged his swing coach, Cameron McCormick, in a discussion of the Walker Cup. As the story goes, McCormick, director of instruction at Brook Hollow Golf Club, near Dallas, was familiar with the biennial match-play competition, but not its heritage.
Bush got around to asking his friend, “You know who they named the Walker Cup for, don’t you?”
“I don’t believe I do,” replied McCormick, a native of Australia.
“My great-grandfather,” Bush finally revealed.
Fifteen of the last 18 U.S. presidents have been golfers, but George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st commander in chief, enjoy a special relationship with the game, one steeped in patriotism, pride and a grand tradition of international goodwill and sportsmanship.
That tradition enjoys its renewal this weekend when the 44th Walker Cup is contested at one of the venerable venues of the New World – and one of the most consequential for this biennial event – the National Golf Links of America. According to George Herbert Walker IV, about 100 Walker and Bush family members are attending the Match.
The first Walker Cup was held here at the National Golf Links in 1922, and the driving force behind the Match was George Herbert Walker, a low-handicap golfer who served as president of the USGA in 1920. Walker donated the trophy that now bears his name, though it was members of the press who dubbed the prize the Walker Cup, and the name stuck.
Walker is the maternal grandfather of George H.W. Bush. Walker’s daughter, Dorothy, married Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut (who also went on to serve a one-year term as USGA president, in 1935). Walker was an investment banker and shipping tycoon who saw golf as a way to forge international goodwill in the wake of World War I.
To say that Walker had a decent head start in life is an understatement. He was born June 11, 1875, into a wealthy St. Louis family. His father, David Davis Walker, owned the largest wholesale dry goods manufacturing firm in the Midwest, Ely, Walker & Company. George, the youngest son, went on to study abroad, first attending Stonyhurst, a prestigious prep school in England, before heading to the University of Edinburgh to study pre-med. He stayed only one year before returning to St. Louis.
Once back home, Walker attended Washington University, and in 1900 he founded the banking and investment firm of G.H. Walker & Co. In prep school Walker had excelled in boxing, rugby and soccer, and he would become an excellent polo player as well. But golf took hold of him, and he became a member at St. Louis Country Club, where he played off a 5 handicap. An interesting side note is that Walker also captained the club’s polo team, which included an accomplished tennis player named Dwight Filley Davis. In 1900, Davis initiated an international tennis competition that continues today, called, of course, the Davis Cup.
When railroad tycoon Averell Harriman decided to open a Wall Street investment firm, he recruited Walker as a founding partner. Walker sated his appetite for golf by joining two area clubs, Deepdale Golf Club and the National Golf Links of America. It was the latter association that brought the first official Walker Cup Match to Long Island, though an unofficial competition had been held in 1921 at Royal Liverpool.
The idea for the Match occurred to Walker after he and a contingent from the USGA traveled to St. Andrews, Scotland, for meetings with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the governing body of golf for the world outside of the U.S. and Mexico. Walker and other Americans took the opportunity to also compete in the British Amateur at Muirfield. After returning to the States, Walker thought the meetings with The R&A were fruitful and wanted to see them renewed. Later that year he proposed a plan during a USGA Executive Committee meeting for golfing countries to compete in a team championship in conjunction with the meetings. He even offered to donate the trophy, which was dubbed the United States Golf Association International Challenge Trophy.
The press just called it the Walker Cup.
His progenitors have helped keep the spirit of the Match and its founder alive. George H.W. Bush offered a speech prior to the 2001 Walker Cup at Sea Island, Ga. George W. Bush shared lunch and played a few practice holes with the USA Team on Thursday at the National, and he was to offer remarks during today’s Opening Ceremonies.
“You’re talking about living history here,” said USA Captain Jim Holtgrieve after he and his team visited with President Bush. “It was very special to hear about his family connection to this event. He didn’t go into it in great detail, but you can tell how proud he is of this event and what it’s become, what it means.”
George Herbert Walker died on June 24, 1953, at the age of 78, and the event that bears his name not only lives on, but has spawned a series of similar international team competitions, including the Curtis Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Palmer Cup, the Presidents Cup and the Solheim Cup. Some of these might be better known, but the Walker Cup has the proud distinction of being the original article that started it all.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.