Jim Holtgrieve, of St. Louis, the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur champion in 1981, participated on three winning USA Walker Cup Teams in 1979, 1981 and 1983, compiling an overall playing record of 6-4-0. He later was chosen by the USGA to captain the 2011 Walker Cup Team that dropped a narrow decision to Great Britain and Ireland at Royal Aberdeen. He will again captain the USA side at the 2013 Match at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y.
What are your overall impressions of playing in the Walker Cup?
Holtgrieve: I served my country – I was in the Air Force for four years – and to get a chance to play for your country, there’s no greater honor in sport, much less golf, than playing for your country. It was a huge honor for me. When I first heard about the Walker Cup I didn’t know much about it. I was a guy from St. Louis and all I was doing was playing golf around here. But when I started playing more national events, I started hearing more about the Walker Cup. This is really the next level. Ironically, my first Walker Cup in 1979 was at Muirfield, where the [British] Open was this [year].
You played in Walker Cups both in the U.S. and Great Britain. What differences are there, especially when it comes to atmosphere and crowd support?
Holtgrieve: Playing golf over in England and Scotland it’s so overwhelming to me because that’s where it began. Somebody asked me when I became captain that don’t you wish you were in the United States first. Versus going to Scotland, are you kidding me? When I was playing … I didn’t take into account the experience that was going on around me. The people over there versus our fans here – and I don’t want to get in trouble – they’re so much more golf-knowledgeable. They are considerate. They clap for good shots for us. In my two Walker Cups [in Great Britain], there were probably 15,000 to 20,000 people. At a Walker Cup here, we’ll get 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 people. They really have respect for the Walker Cup. And it was just wonderful playing in front of those people over there.
How were your nerves for the first tee shot in 1979?
Holtgrieve: Doug Fischesser and I were playing together [in foursomes] and Doug wanted me to hit the tee shot. I was a good long-iron player – the 1-iron was my big club back then – and I hit 1-iron off the first tee. We’re you nervous? Well, sure you are. I’m nervous on every tee shot. Honestly, I focused on my strength and my strength was hitting my 1-iron and I trusted it. I was able to hit it OK. It almost went out of bounds, but not quite.
What is your most vivid Walker Cup match memory?
Holtgrieve: The match that stands out was in 1979 when [Doug] Fischesser and I are playing. On the 14th hole, I hooked it way left and Peter McEvoy hit it way right. So the crowds went both directions. The ironic thing about it was we got up on the green and I had a 4- or 5-foot putt for bogey. They made about a 25-footer, so I went down and picked up the coin. And I’m walking off the green and Peter said, “Jim, what are you doing?” You guys just made par. He said, “No, no. Back there in the stuff, we whiffed it.” And I didn’t know that because the crowds are so big, you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it. So we ended up losing that hole. We ended up halving the match. It was a great embarrassment to me that I didn’t know.
What’s your most vivid moment from a match?
Holtgrieve: At Cypress Point [in 1981], Jim Gabrielson, our captain, put me up against a young guy named Roy Lafferty. [Jay] Sigel, Jodie Mudd and a couple of other guys had gone out earlier. So I was in the middle of the pack [for Sunday singles]. I get to 15, the par-3, 1 up, and we both made 2 at 15. So he’s the first to tee off at 16 and he hits it in the ocean. So I didn’t like the layup [on the par-3 hole], so my caddie says, “Jim, you’re one of the best long-iron players I have ever seen, let’s play to our strength.” I hit a 2-iron to 2 feet and I made a 2 at 16. We tied 17 and I won my match, [2 and 1], and that was the point that retained the trophy. Even though Dr. [Tom] Loss, who is a member at Cypress [Point], says it’s the ‘stupidest’ golf shot he’s ever heard of because when I guy hits it in the ocean, you lay up. But I said, “Tom, the layup is not easy.” I went 2-2 on 15 and 16 and won the match and won the point to keep the Walker Cup in the United States.
Did you start to appreciate the Walker Cup more as you played in your second and third?
Holtgrieve: I was such a stupid competitor back then that I only focused on playing and winning. Bob Lewis is a good friend of mine and a past captain and I said to him, “Do you think that we’ll ever in our golfing career just go out and have a good time and enjoy it versus our competitive nature?” I sure hope so. I think I am getting that way now. Certainly I remember the matches and I remember the opening ceremonies when the flags went up, which is very big to me and emotional for me, particularly now because it’s important.
How did these Walker Cup experiences as a player mold you as a captain?
Holtgrieve: That’s why I make sure we talk about it a lot. At the practice session, I told the guys that certainly you need to try to make the team and play for your country. But I want to make sure that we’re also going to have a great experience and remember what we’ve done the rest of your life because you will always be a Walker Cupper. To be called a Walker Cupper, there’s only 400-plus in the world. You just have to take every moment and enjoy it. I also talk to them about what’s important in life. I give out Dr. David Cook’s book, “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days in Utopia,” to each of the team members and we talk a lot about what’s important. Winning is a big thing. I want to bring the trophy back here to the United States. It’s not about that. The Walker Cup is built to build relationships and to bring people together. And that’s what I want from my guys. When they play, they’ll have interaction with our opponents and then afterward when they go on with their life and become professional [golfers] or doctors or whatever they do, they’ll understand what’s really important in life, and that golf has taught them a lot about those life skills.