SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The Walker Cup began in 1922 as a friendly competition between the USA and Great Britain and Ireland. The USGA actually invited all golfing nations to participate, but in the wake of World War I, no other countries could take part.
The Match thus became a two-team event, and something of a one-sided affair. Between 1922 and 1987, the USA won 28 of the 31 matches, with one draw, leading at least one observer to dub the competition the Walk-Over Cup. Some called for the expansion of the GB&I side to include continental Europe, as the Ryder Cup did in 1979.
But in 1989, two major occurrences helped to turn this biennial event into a rivalry. Great Britain and Ireland not only defeated the USA, but it did so on American soil for the first time. Thus began a run of 12 matches that the two sides would split evenly, entering this week. The calls to expand the GB&I Team have quieted.
“I think the standard of amateur golf on our side of the Atlantic has certainly improved,” said six-time GB&I Walker Cup player Gary Wolstenholme, of England, who competed on four winning teams.
Wolstenholme and his contemporaries also point to a philosophical change in the selection process by The R&A, which selects the 10-man GB&I side. With more and more golfers from Great Britain and Ireland attending college in the U.S., The R&A could not afford to overlook them, even if they didn’t play the majority of their competitive golf in Europe.
A new wave of players such as Luke Donald (Northwestern), Graeme McDowell (Alabama-Birmingham), Paul Casey (Arizona State), Oliver Wilson (Augusta, Ga., State) and Rhys Davies (East Tennessee State) started matriculating at U.S. colleges, where they not only competed against elite players, but also got acclimated to playing on American courses. Twelve years after the stunning GB&I win in 1989 at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, the USA was again defeated on home soil, this time at Ocean Forest Golf Club in Sea Island, Ga. It came in the middle of a three-match GB&I win streak, aided heavily by Donald, an All-American at Northwestern University who won the 1999 NCAA Division I title.
“I think people have become more aware of how good the U.S. college system is,” said Donald, who makes his home in the Chicago area and plays out of Conway Farms Golf Club, site of the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur. “That’s one downfall overseas in the UK that if you want to carry on your education, it’s very hard to mix both sport and education. I’m not sure how many are coming over for the education as well, but the college golf scene is pretty good. You are constantly playing against great players and that’s a great way to improve.”
College coaches have expanded their recruiting to a global scale, and many have found talent in Great Britain and Ireland.
This year’s GB&I Walker Cup Team has a strong U.S. college influence. Garrick Porteous, of England, the 2013 British Amateur champion, just completed his eligibility at the University of Tennessee. England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, who won last month’s U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., begins his freshman year at Northwestern in 10 days.
Rhys Pugh, of Wales, will be a junior at East Tennessee State, while Ireland’s Gavin Moynihan will be a freshman at the University of Alabama, joining USA Walker Cuppers Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt in the Crimson Tide lineup. Another Irishman, Kevin Phelan, just graduated from North Florida.
“The opportunity of going to American colleges as much as anything [has helped],” said Wolstenholme. “We’ve had a whole load of guys who went over there. Prior to 1995, it was really frowned upon that guys in the States didn’t get picked because they weren’t in Britain during the selection process. Now it’s much more accepted.”
Case in point: several GB&I Team members chose to play in the U.S. Amateur in mid-August at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Being fully exempt based on their top-50 World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) certainly made the decision easier for Neil Raymond, Jordan Smith, Max Orrin, Phelan and Fitzpatrick, all of whom made the GB&I Walker Cup Team. The exemption from qualifying based on WAGR standing began in 2011.
“There is no intimidation,” said GB&I Captain Nigel Edwards. “They are comfortable. You can see it from their performance at the U.S. Amateur. It wasn’t just Matt and Raymond. It was a whole host of players.
“The great thing about our players coming to the U.S. … is they are gaining such experience. Obviously college golf is having an impact.”
Virtually all of the top college teams have at least one international golfer on their roster, drawing from Europe, South America, Mexico, Canada, Korea and Australia.
Donald, Casey, McDowell and Wilson have illustrated that attending an American college was beneficial to their games and the maturation process. Donald posted an impressive 7-1 record in two Walker Cups, including the 2001 side that some consider the best in GB&I history. That team also included McDowell, Michael Hoey (Clemson), and Jamie Elson (Augusta State). Wilson was on the victorious 2003 team that also included Scotland’s David Inglis, who played at Tulsa and is now an assistant at Northwestern, where Fitzpatrick starts classes on Sept. 16.
“It opens a lot of doors for players from Great Britain and Ireland and [continental] Europe to go play in the States,” said Porteous. “It’s such good competition. You’re playing against the best players in the world on a weekly basis.”
They also adapt to playing American courses against America’s top amateurs, eliminating the intimidation factor that might have existed in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s when the USA dominated not only the Walker Cup, but the professional majors as well. Now American golfers are just part of golf’s growing melting pot. This year’s U.S. Open was won by Englishman Justin Rose, a 1997 Walker Cupper, and past Walker Cup stars McDowell and Rory McIlroy, both of Northern Ireland, claimed U.S. Opens in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
“I think we’re more comfortable over here,” said Pugh, who went 3-0 in the 2011 Match at Royal Aberdeen and followed fellow Welshman and two-time GB&I Walker Cupper Rhys Davies to East Tennessee State. “Sometimes when you haven’t been over here it can be tough.
“[Playing in the U.S.] you can get an education and play competitive golf.”
Added Edwards: “They’re broadening their horizons. They are getting away from their comfortable environments and learning to look after themselves. They are staying in education, which is a great thing. That’s very important. More than anything, they are learning to become more comfortable in other surroundings.
“Lee Trevino once said as soon as the Seves [Ballesteros] of the world take their sweaters off, they’ll win all over the world.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.