John Huggan: Walker Cup woe

Ian Hutcheon. Picture: Paul Reid
Ian Hutcheon. Picture: Paul Reid
Share this article
Have your say

THE plaque on the wall in the corner of the lounge in the Monifieth clubhouse is busy with detail.

Which is not surprising. The “golfing achievements of Ian C. Hutcheon” are many and varied. He is, in the minds of most judges (including this one) the best amateur golfer this country has produced since the 1960s, when Ronnie Shade reigned supreme. Indeed, for longevity alone, Hutcheon is a remarkable figure. Even now, at the age of 71, he boasts a handicap of plus-one. He has been scratch or better for more than half a century.

Scottish Amateur champion in 1973, Stroke Play champion in 1971, ’74 and ’79 and Scottish Seniors Stroke Play champion in 2003, ’04 and ’07, Hutcheon was an ever-present in the Scottish Home International side between 1971 and 1980 and, most topically given the proximity of next weekend’s latest edition of the biennial clash between Great Britain & Ireland and the United States, four times a Walker Cup player. Oh yes, he also formed one quarter of the four-man GB&I side for the Eisenhower Trophy on four occasions, winning the individual event – and in the process playing a dominant role in the clinching of the World Amateur Team title – in 1976 at Penina in Portugal.

Those numbers and statistics are impressive enough, but it is the way Hutcheon went about his business that lingers longest in the memory. An electrical engineer by trade, he was what is these days all but unknown – a leading amateur golfer who actually works for a living. Blessed with the laziest and smoothest rhythm imaginable and a laid-back temperament ideal for golf, the Monifieth man played the game with a style and grace not many – professional or amateur – could match. Especially into a stiff seaside wind, the quality of strike he generated was a thing of beauty, his peerless control of flight and trajectory an education for all.

“Ian Hutcheon was a truly great player,” says two-times Amateur champion Peter McEvoy. “I played with him in the 1977 Walker Cup and then we went on to the US Amateur at Aronimink in Philadelphia. We both got to the last 16. I played practice rounds with Ian who right then was probably playing more golf than he had ever done before. And he was brilliant, a fantastic player.”

Still, despite all of the above – and a happy retirement dominated by twice-a-week golf with his pals, “gardening and grandkids” – Hutcheon is not a happy man. Six days from now, for the first time since 1949, the GB&I Walker Cup side will tee-up at the National Golf Links on Long Island without a single Scot in its ten-strong midst.

“I just wonder where the Scottish Golf Union is headed,” he says with a shake of the head. “I’m not sure they know what they are doing. We clearly don’t have players who are good enough for the Walker Cup, which was unheard of in my day. The only debate back then was whether or not there would be a Welshman in the side. It certainly never crossed anyone’s mind that there would be a team of ten with no Scots in it.

“I know we were miles behind at the Eisenhower Trophy last year, too. These are all pointers that something is not right. It’s not as if the lads don’t get enough opportunities. They seem to spend a lot of time abroad practising in the winter. But it’s not paying off.

“They need to re-think the whole thing, from how the elite squad is handled to the coaches that they have. I’m not familiar with what they are teaching but I do know that players have gone to the SGU coaches and pretty quickly decided what they were hearing wasn’t for them. The whole thing needs to be examined.”

Perhaps the biggest sadness is that such strong words from such a respected figure will almost certainly – given the recent arrogance and indifference shown by the SGU high-heid yins towards any kind of dissent – fall on deaf ears. Which is a pity. Hutcheon, a golfer worth watching, is also a man worth listening to. Like so many of his generation, in fact, he is worried for the future of the game that has dominated his social life.

“I’m a bit disappointed with many of the top players these days,” he continues. “Look at Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who just recently were ranked one and two in the world. Yet neither one of them can hit a fairway off the tee. It surprises me that you can be at the top of the game and yet not drive the ball worth a damn. There’s something wrong with the game when that is the case. It suggests to me that the rough isn’t enough of a hazard or they are hitting the ball so far they don’t care where they hit it. That’s what is wrong with the game.

“If we went back to the days when, say, a 280-yard drive was a good hit, there is no way the top guys could play the way they do. They wouldn’t be able to hit the greens from some of the spots they would be in. Of course, they would have to stop swinging so hard, which is what the modern game encourages. I was never taught to swing like that. The top guys get away with too much. Look at the event in America last week. I couldn’t believe how many bad shots were hit over the last few holes. Their thinking amazes me.”

Still, for all that the future is a concern, Hutcheon has some great memories to fall back on. Over the course of his four consecutive Walker Cups beginning at St Andrews in 1975 and ending at Cypress Point in 1981, he was afforded a close-up view of many of the game’s emerging stars. In 1975, Hutcheon beat the 1976 US Open champion, Jerry Pate, twice in one day. In ’79, the 1983 USPGA champion, Hal Sutton, was another victim. And in ’81 he managed to take the 1995 US Open champion Corey Pavin as far as the 14th green (!) before succumbing. But that convincing defeat wasn’t the most impressive golf Hutcheon saw while wearing a Walker Cup sweater. That honour is reserved for the man who next week is the non-playing captain of the American side.

“The guy who impressed me most was Jim Holtgrieve,” says Hutcheon with a wry smile. “He gave me a right hammering at Muirfield in ’79. I was out in level par and five down. He wasn’t the best player I ever faced, but he played the best golf I’ve ever been up against in a Walker Cup.”

Some great moments then but, for Hutcheon, perhaps the best of all came during his Walker Cup debut in 1975. In a week when the US side contained the likes of Pate, Curtis Strange, Craig Stadler, Gary Koch and Jay Haas, legendary coach John Jacobs paid Hutcheon the ultimate compliment: “Ian, you’re at least as good as any of those guys out there.”

John Jacobs certainly knew what he was talking about. What a player.