On the eve of the 43rd Walker Cup Match, The R&A’s Chief Executive Peter Dawson took a break from a busy week of preparations to reflect on the past, present and future of amateur golf.
Question: What makes the Walker Cup special and how does it stay relevant to both players and fans in the modern professional era?
Dawson: There are a number of reasons. After starting in Great Britain & Ireland, it was in the U.S. that golf really took hold. As the first two countries to have large golf playing populations it was natural that the best players on both sides of the Atlantic would want to pit themselves against each other. At the same time professional golf took hold and it was decided that an amateur competition was necessary. In those days the standard of amateur golf was just as good as the professional game and for many years it was an event for the career amateur. Now we are seeing a much younger players, most of whom will turn professional in the years ahead.
We are bound to see the stars of tomorrow this weekend as every Walker Cup in recent times has produced players who have gone onto stellar careers in the professional game. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickleson, Luke Donald and Paul Casey all played and going back Jack Nicklaus himself was a Walker Cup player. This is a natural stepping stone and an ideal event for elite players to round off their amateur careers. I really don’t see this as a threat to the Walker Cup. It has changed the Walker Cup for sure but not for the worse. I think the beauty of the amateur game at the top level is that it does allow young people to test themselves against their peers before deciding to take a career in the game. I think they all enjoy it, it is a great occasion with a unique atmosphere, played in a great spirit in front of very knowledgeable crowds and it is probably the last time many of them will play with the crowds walking the fairways with them.
Question: Why was Royal Aberdeen selected and how have preparations gone this week?
Dawson: We take the Walker Cup mainly to links courses, often on The Open Rota but just as often that next level of course which is perhaps a wonderful golf course but it does not have the infrastructure to host The Open. Royal Aberdeen is certainly one of the great links courses that we have, the first nine is stunning and the back nine provides a stiff challenge as well. We also try to come to a club where the members truly embrace the event and we have received unanimously enthusiastic and energetic support. It is an old club, founded in 1780, and all of the great traditions of British golf can be found here.
This week we have found the golf course in superb condition, the green staff has done a terrific job, and the players have been unanimous in their praise. Something of a breeze is forecast so we could get some real testing links conditions, which is just what we want.
However, this occasion isn’t just about the Match. It provides a great opportunity for the co-governing bodies of the game, The R&A and the USGA, to meet and discuss golf’s big issues. It is all about people in golf coming together to celebrate this Match and discuss the affairs of the game at the same time.
Question: What role has the northeast of Scotland played in the history of golf and what does the future hold?
Dawson: Golf is very much a game for the people up in the northeast of Scotland. Stretching right round from Aberdeen to Inverness and beyond there are many golf courses, both on the sea and inland, and the game is generally very affordable.
Paul Lawrie’s Open Championship win at Carnoustie in 1999 was a great boost to golf in the region and recently the opening of Castle Stuart, near Inverness, has added considerably to the attraction of the area. So it is a golf tourism destination as well as a place that has played a big part in the early development of the game.
People up here know their golf and we will have great spectators this weekend.
Question: Could we ever see any changes to the Walker Cup in a constantly evolving amateur game that now has the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR)? Would we ever see a European team?
Dawson: The Ryder Cup went to the European dimension not least because it had become very one-sided and since the change that balance has been redressed. The Walker Cup itself was very one-sided for a long time but Great Britain & Ireland won three times in a row not so long ago (1999-2003) and the results of the last three matches have been very close so the demand from that point of view to become European is not there. I know the European golfers would be very interested in joining in. Never say never, but I think at the moment it is a stable event. We, of course, do have the St. Andrews Trophy where GB&I play Continental Europe and that is a very fine match that is creating a history of its own.
Question: It has been a great year for amateur golf – Tom Lewis leading The Open, Patrick Cantlay tying for 21st at the U.S. Open and shooting a 60 in a PGA Tour event – what impact has this had on the profile of amateur golf?
Dawson: Players, as they are in so many sports, are getting better, younger. Not so many years ago if you were amateur and turned professional you had to wait one heck of a long time before success came your way. Now these guys are turning professional and winning very early in their careers and often playing in tour events as amateurs and doing well. Cantlay’s performances on the PGA Tour this year have been remarkable. Tom Lewis scoring 65 at Royal St George’s, absolutely remarkable. We’ve seen it with others.
What this success does is it helps young people making their way in the game but setting targets for them. It also brings more people into the game, both spectating and playing. The game is doing well and there are far more good players than there were just 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
John Robertson is a media and editorial manager for The R&A. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.