USA Flips Switch Late in Singles for 8-4 Day 1 Lead
September 9, 2017 | LOS ANGELES, CALIF.
By David Shefter, USGA
For a brief moment on Saturday afternoon, it appeared the USA Walker Cup Team might be facing a deficit going into final day of the 46th Match at The Los Angeles Country Club.
But Captain John “Spider” Miller watched several of his players flip the proverbial switch in the latter part of their singles matches to give the Americans an 8-4 lead over Great Britain and Ireland in front of thousands of enthusiastic fans who came out to experience this biennial competition.
Reigning NCAA champion Braden Thornberry, 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Will Zalatoris and world No. 2 Maverick McNealy, the only returning USA player from the seven-point loss in 2015 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, all rallied late for key victories, putting the Americans in prime position to reclaim the Cup.
“I would say to the team and these guys know it, we’re preparing as if we were even or down,” said Miller. “We’re not thinking ahead of ourselves. We have matches to play [Sunday] morning … and we have to be at our best and we have to fight for every point.”
In each of the last two USA victories – 2013 and 2009, the USA led by the same 8-4 score after Day 1. The team needs to garner 5½ of the possible 14 points on Sunday – four from morning foursomes (alternate shot) matches and 10 from afternoon singles – to win the two-day biennial competition.
At one point during the afternoon singles session, GB&I led in five of eight matches. Then things began to unravel for the visitors as the course began to play firmer and faster under the bright afternoon sunshine.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the result,” said GB&I captain Andy Ingram. “I think that a lot of the games were close, we made some mistakes probably where we shouldn’t have and we’ll learn from those. We need 13 points and we’ve got four.”
Thornberry, 20, of Olive Branch, Miss., started the USA comeback by winning four of the final five holes against reigning British Amateur champion Harry Ellis. It was not the early birthday present Ellis wanted. The Englishman, who turns 22 on Sunday, was 2 up with five to play before Thornberry, a junior at the University of Mississippi, was conceded his birdie on the par-5 14th hole before registering winning pars on Nos. 16 and 17 to take a 1-up lead. He saved his best for last, hitting his approach from 200 yards to 18 inches to seal a 2-up win.
“I pushed it a little bit, but we’re not going to tell anyone that,” said Thornberry. “But it was fun and I’m glad I could get the victory.”
Zalatoris, 21, of Plano, Texas, was in a tight match with 21-year-old Matthew Jordan, of England, and he trailed by one hole after 12 holes. Zalatoris regained the lead with pars on the next two holes, then converted a clutch par putt on the 78-yard, par-3 15th hole, which produced a fist-pump from the fiery Wake Forest senior. After a poor drive on No. 18, Zalatoris managed to hit his third shot to 8 feet, and when Jordan failed to convert his 15-foot downhill par putt, the Texan’s putt was conceded for a 2-up win.
But the happiest man on the property might have been McNealy, who went 0-2-1 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and has been eagerly waiting to avenge his 2015 performance. But as he walked down the 10th fairway during his match against 2016 British Amateur champion Scott Gregory, the No. 2 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ admitted to feeling a bit fatigued. He went 2 down to the 22-year-old from England.
Then the former hockey player turned it on in what he dubbed “the third period.” He squared the match with winning pars on 12 and 13, then delivered the knockout blow with an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 15 to trigger three consecutive wins and a 3-and-1 victory. That followed up his 5-and-4 morning foursomes win with 2017 U.S. Amateur runner-up Doug Ghim, of Arlington Heights, Ill.
“I joked with Doug this morning … that I doubled my point total career-wise for the Walker Cup,” said McNealy, who is playing his final amateur competition. “But this is big for me. I really wanted to play well this week for my teammates, for my country [and] for Captain Miller. It’s a great start today, but there’s a lot of golf left and those guys are playing awesome, so we got to keep the pedal down.”
Norman Xiong, 18, of Canyon Lake, Calif., delivered the other stunning USA comeback in singles, erasing an early 3-down deficit against Connor Syme, of Scotland, in posting a 2-and-1 victory. Collin Morikawa, 20, of La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., and Ghim never trailed in their singles victories. Morikawa defeated Paul McBride, 21, of the Republic of Ireland, 3 and 2, and Ghim earned a 2-and-1 decision over 2016 Stanford graduate David Boote, 23, of Wales.
The two GB&I singles victories came from 2016 British Amateur runner-up Robert McIntyre, of Scotland, and Jack Singh Brar, of England. McIntyre, 21, who sat out the morning foursomes session, defeated long-hitting Cameron Champ, of Sacramento, Calif., 6 and 4, while Singh Brar, 20, built as much as a 6-up advantage over reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad, 26, of Newport Beach, Calif., before earning a 3-and-2 win.
“It was an incredible start,” said Singh Brar. “Obviously you couldn’t have asked for much better. Played pretty solid. This afternoon I had a great start and then just kept it going.”
The teams split the morning foursomes matches, 2-2. Morikawa and Xiong birdied the first four holes and won their first five en route to an 8-and-7 victory over Englishmen Ellis and Alfie Plant, the low amateur in this year’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. It was the largest margin of victory in an 18-hole foursomes match, surpassing the 7-and-6 outcomes of Jim Holtgrieve and Bob Lewis Jr. (1983), and Bryce Molder and David Eger in 2001.
“I think we just hit really good shots and didn’t miss too many,” said Xiong, a sophomore at the University of Oregon. “Things just went our way. We played great golf.”
GB&I earned its two foursomes points in the middle two matches. McBride and Syme won four of the first 11 holes in beating reigning U.S. Amateur champion Doc Redman, 19, of Raleigh, N.C., and Zalatoris, who is McBride’s teammate at Wake Forest University. Then with their side facing a potential 3-1 deficit, Gregory and Singh Brar won three consecutive holes from No. 14 to beat 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Scottie Scheffler, 21, of Dallas, Texas, and Champ, 3 and 2.
They were the kind of performances the GB&I team will need on Sunday to rally past the USA and claim their second consecutive victory in the most prestigious team competition in amateur golf.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.