WALKER CUP
For USA Walker Cup Team, It's Not Just About Match September 3, 2015 | Far Hills, N.J. By David Shefter, USGA

Bryson DeChambeau checks out Arnold Palmer's extensive club collection during the USA Walker Cup Team's visit to Latrobe C.C. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

The experience of playing in the Walker Cup is not just what occurs during the two days of competition. In fact, some of the most indelible memories are created in the days leading into the biennial event.

On Aug. 27, the 10 USA players and their captain, John “Spider” Miller, traveled to Latrobe, Pa., to enjoy two days of golf and camaraderie with Arnold Palmer at Latrobe Country Club.

Meet USA Team
Meet Great Britain & Ireland Team
Meet the Captains

The trip included a tour of Palmer’s barn – with its stunning array of artifacts – and an hour with The King in his office, where Palmer counseled the players and took questions on a variety of topics.

“Guys were in awe,” said Miller during a teleconference call on Sept. 2, two days before his team was to depart for England for this year’s Match Sept. 12-13 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club. “It was something … unreal. If I tried to plan it, it could not have gone better. The kids’ mouths were open and [they were] hanging on every word.”

So what was Palmer’s advice to the eight college-age players who have dreams of playing professionally?

“What hit home with the kids was how to conduct your professional life,” said Miller, 65, of Bloomington, Ind. “They learned if you treat people right and you are polite and always do the right thing, your professional life can extend for so long. That’s what I wanted them to learn.”

Players also commented on social media about the visit.

 

"This was my first time meeting a golf legend and it was something I will never forget," said Bryson DeChambeau, of Clovis, Calif., who won the U.S. Amateur two weeks ago, a feat also accomplished by Palmer in 1954. "The qualities of grace, humility, kindness and honor are things that he displayed for everyone who met him. I cannot thank him enough for the small opportune time that we got to spend with one of the greats."

The trip also included golf at Laurel Valley Golf Club in nearby Ligonier, Pa., and at Latrobe Country Club, where Palmer was an observer. Miller asked Palmer to assign each of the players a nickname, although the captainwasn’t ready to divulge any of the names.

“Hold on to that for another day or two,” said Miller, who earned his own nickname from a boyhood penchant for climbing.

After two days in Pennsylvania, the team took a brief respite before reuniting in New York on Sept. 3. Dinner on Thursday at The Links Club in Manhattan was planned with special guest Jimmy Dunne III, the managing director for Sandler O’Neill and an avid golfer. The financial banking firm lost 66 of its 171 partners in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Meeting Dunne was a precursor to Friday’s visit to the 9/11 Memorial, a trip the 2013 Walker Cup Team took prior to the Match at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y. On Friday afternoon, the players were to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange before catching a red-eye from JFK to Manchester, England.

Golf at Hillside and Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, respectively, before formal preparations began on Monday at Lytham, a course only Oklahoma State senior Jordan Niebrugge, of Mequon, Wis., has played in competition. Miller made a scouting trip last summer, but the weather conditions were uncharacteristically warm with temperatures in the 70s.

Robby Shelton checks out some of Arnold Palmer's memorabilia during the USA Walker Cup Team's visit to Latrobe C.C, (USGA/Fred Vuich)

“I asked Jordan how many drivers he hit and he said two,” said Miller. “I expect there will be a lot of position playing. It’s all about avoiding those bunkers.”

Miller is expecting Niebrugge to be the team’s guide on links golf, having qualified for The Open Championship this summer at Hillside and finishing tied for sixth on the Old Course at St. Andrews with a 72-hole total of 11-under 277, the lowest score by an amateur in the championship’s 144 years. Niebrugge, the lone holdover from the victorious 2013 team captained by Jim Holtgrieve, also advanced to match play in the Amateur Championship at Carnoustie in June.

Miller consulted with past captains such as Holtgrieve and Bob Lewis Jr., and chatted for more than hour with two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton, the captain of the 1991 U.S. Ryder Cup Team, who shared his philosophy on pairing players.

The Walker Cup features two morning sessions of foursomes (four matches) and eight singles matches on Saturday and 10 singles matches on Sunday. The USA, which leads the series 35-8-1, needs 13 points to retain the Cup and Great Britain & Ireland needs 13½ to reclaim it. GB&I has won four of the last five Walker Cups contested on home soil, with the lone defeat in 2007 at Royal County Down.

“Part of the takeaway I got from Dave Stockton is you match by personalities,” said Miller, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who was on the 1999 USA Team. “I’m a big believer in that, and that’s what I intend to do.”

Miller asked each player to list their partner preferences from 1 through 5, although some have told him it doesn’t matter who they play with in foursomes (alternate-shot). Miller said he will rely heavily on input from his players, having gotten to know them by scouting 13 events in 2015. There was also an informal practice session in January in Sea Island, Ga., for potential team members.

At last week’s practice session, University of Georgia senior Lee McCoy took to calling 52-year-old Mike McCoy (who is no relation) “Uncle Mike.”

“My challenge is to provide a framework and a schedule that allows all the players to be at their best on Saturday morning,” said Miller. “All of my guys have good, strong team personalities. I think my mid-amateurs (McCoy and Scott Harvey) will emerge as miniature assistant captains. They have melded and interacted well with the younger guys. We don’t have any outliers.”

It has been a busy summer of traveling, scouting and organizing for Miller. With the attire selected, the itinerary scheduled and the team named, all that’s left is the competition itself.

“I’m trying to fulfill my obligation the best I can,” said Miller. “I’m all packed and ready to go.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.