JAMES Byrne is well aware that the defeated United States team in the 2011 Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen has left their conquering Great Britain & Ireland counterparts trailing since the players involved in that two-day battle moved on to the paid ranks.
While only Tom Lewis from the home line-up – and even he is struggling a bit at the moment after his fairytale win in the Portugal Masters just under two years ago – has tasted success so far at the highest level, there has been no stopping the Americans.
Russell Henley (Sony Open), Harris English (FedEx St Jude Classic) and Jordan Spieth (John Deere Classic) have all won on the PGA Tour this season, while Peter Uihlein (Madeira Island Open) has done likewise on the European Tour.
However, as he prepares to launch his third attempt to get on to the first rung of the latter circuit’s ladder, Byrne is confident he can be back playing on the same stage again one day as those rising stars and is using compatriot Scott Henry as his inspiration.
A highly-decorated amateur, Henry did not find his feet instantly in the paid ranks but, after chiselling away at the coalface – first on the Alps Tour then the Challenge Tour – he’s now starting to make headway on the European Tour, as he showed when finishing joint-fourth in the recent Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles.
“I know some people expected the likes of myself and Michael Stewart [the other Scot in the winning GB&I team in Aberdeen] to be playing on the European Tour by now, but the depth is so great in professional golf,” said Byrne, a 24-year-old from Banchory.
“I still feel I am capable of playing at the highest level and it has been pretty inspiring to see what Scott Henry is now achieving after spending two or three years on the Alps Tour. He was such a good amateur that you never doubted he had that talent but he still had to find his feet in the professional game and then try to take things to the next level.
“I know that the likes of Harrish English, Jordan Spieth [also just picked by Fred Couples as one of his wildcards in the US team for next month’s Presidents Cup], Russell Henley and Peter Uihlein have all recorded good wins since turning professional but there’s no need for me to panic. It was the same with both Martin Laird and Russell Knox. They both had to play at a lower level for a few years before getting on to the PGA Tour.”
GB&I, with Welshman Nigel Edwards at the helm once again, defend the Walker Cup at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island this weekend. It marks a return to the event’s first host venue back in 1922 but, rather embarrassingly, there is no Scot in the GB&I team for only the second time in the biennial bout’s history.
That has led to Ian Hutcheon, one of Scottish amateur golf’s legendary figures, to call for a shake-up in the Scottish Golf Union but Byrne believes there is no need for any knee-jerk reaction and points to a four-strong tartan presence in the GB&I boys’ team for last weekend’s Jacques Leglise Trophy as proof of the system still working.
“I don’t think there is that much to worry about,” insisted Byrne, a former Scottish Boys’ Stroke-Play champion and runner-up at the 2010 Amateur Championship at Muirfield. “Look at all the various pro Tours and the Scottish players are doing well on them at the moment. We also had four players in the Jacques Leglise Trophy last weekend, which was great to see.
“I don’t think there is any need to overhaul the whole system, because these sort of things happen in cycles. Who knows, we could have three or four in the next Walker Cup.
“It was the biggest thing in my career, especially in Aberdeen, and still is. The success some of the US players have enjoyed since shows how good that win was for us and, although the final score was 14-12, we actually did it pretty comfortably, too. So I’ll definitely be watching this weekend. I don’t know many of the players on the GB&I team, but they seem to have a few superstars, especially the boy Matt Fitzpatrick, who did well to win the US Amateur.”
While Byrne already holds cards for the Asian Tour and the South African Sunshine Tour, he is keen to get a foot in the door in Europe and, fresh from producing a low-scoring performance to win a second successive Northern Open title at Meldrum House, is feeling confident heading into next week’s Qualifying School first stage event at The Roxburghe.
“Having failed to get past the first stage in the last two years, it’s important that I get over that hurdle this time to give myself a chance of getting a card,” he said of a trip home that will also include an appearance in the Paul Lawrie Invitational at Deeside in a fortnight’s time.
“I expect to progress next week, especially after playing so well in The Northern Open. I’ve definitely matured a lot over the past two years and I’d also like to think I’m a better player.”
Inglis on Fitzpatrick-watch
DAVID Inglis, a member of the winning Great Britain & Ireland side at Ganton a decade ago, has a watching brief at this weekend’s Walker Cup. In his role as the assistant coach at Northwestern University in Chicago, the Scot is there to keep an eye on Matt Fitzpatrick, his latest recruit at Luke Donald’s alma mater.
“I’m really looking forward to it as Matt has had a phenomenal summer, claiming the Silver Medal at The Open then winning the US Amateur,” said Inglis, who cut his own competitive teeth at Glencorse. “The latter in particular shows he can beat the Americans on home soil and should give the GB&I team that same belief.”
With three players each representing the Universities of Alabama and California, Inglis is expecting a “closer-knit” US team than in recent years and “some natural foursomes pairings” as well. But he added: “The one topic of conversation over here has been about the USGA mandating that two mid-amateurs (Nathan Smith and Todd White) must be on the team. It will be interesting to see what happens given that the majority of people would say the younger college players are in better form.”
GB&I had to wait until 1989 to record a first win on US soil and have only achieved that feat once more since then in 2001, when the team included Donald as well as Graeme McDowell and Marc Warren. But, on a course that could suit them, Inglis is backing the visitors to add to the American misery on the back of Europe’s victory in the Solheim Cup in Denver just under a fortnight ago.
“National Golf Links is an amazing place,” said the former British Boys’ champion. “It’s a really fun course with lots of birdie chances and has potential to play pretty linksy.”