John Huggan: Walker Cup is still captivating

The Great Britain & Ireland team celebrate their victory in the 2011 Walker Cup at Balgownie Links. Picture: Getty
The Great Britain & Ireland team celebrate their victory in the 2011 Walker Cup at Balgownie Links. Picture: Getty
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DISAPPOINTINGLY, in a golfing world where cold hard cash is deemed more and more important, not many outside the game’s inner circle will pay much attention to next weekend’s Walker Cup matches at Royal Lytham & 
St Annes. A two-day contest between ten leading amateurs from Great Britain & Ireland and those representing the United States has these days only a limited appeal.

Which is why the galleries gathered at the famous Lancashire course will no doubt have a homogenous look about them. Whether by accident or design, this particular trans-Atlantic biennial contest will be watched by a crowd notable only for its lack of diversity. White, middle-aged, affluent and members of what might politely be called “posh clubs” will cover the vast majority of those gathered to see if GB&I can beat the odds and re-claim the famously large trophy.

It would, however, be best not to bet on that eventuality. Two years ago at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island, the home team romped to a victory diplomatically described as “comfortable”. Harsher observers might use words like “embarrassing” or “completely one-sided”. Although GB&I managed to edge home by a point at Royal Aberdeen four years ago, the Walker Cup today more and more resembles the garden party that was the Ryder Cup prior to 1983.

In truth, that 2011 victory – over a US side containing Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Patrick Cantlay, Russell Henley and Peter Uihlein – had more to do with the north-east of Scotland’s extraordinary weather than anything else.

Conditions over the two days were extreme even by our standards and, more importantly, completely foreign to the obviously superior Americans.

By way of proof, in the four years since, only two members of the home side, Tom Lewis and Andy Sullivan, have graduated to the European Tour. The two Scots in evidence, James Byrne and Michael Stewart, have sunk almost without trace. Byrne is currently playing on the Asian Tour’s second division developmental circuit. Just last week Stewart missed the cut on the PGA europro Tour, European professional golf’s third division.

So it is that the Americans will, as usual, go into the coming matches as strong favourites to win for the 37th time since the first encounter back in 1922. Part of that domination is down to numbers, of course. Uncle Sam has an awful lot of nephews from whom to choose. But the combined might of GB&I have never helped themselves by adopting a selection process dogged by political, national and regional in-fighting. In other words, each of the four home countries has forever been more concerned with how many of their own they can squeeze into the ten-man squad than they are with ultimate victory.

Witness the various reactions to the announcement of the ten players who will battle for the home cause this time round. Instead of any informed analysis of those selected, Ireland’s media was obsessed with the fact that, for the first time ever, half of the team hails from the Emerald Isle. It wasn’t much better in Scotland either. The prevailing storyline here was the presence of two Scots – Grant Forrest and Jack McDonald – (now three because of the late addition of Ewen Ferguson) two years on from a GB&I side that was bereft of Caledonians.

It was ever thus. Good players are still being picked ahead of really good players and those with friends in the right places are still making teams before those with enough gumption to speak up when things are obviously not as they should be. By way of recent example, the quite extraordinary omission of two-time Scottish Amateur champion David Law – a member of the host club no less – from the 2011 GB&I squad that went into battle at Balgownie was nothing short of outrageous.

Even non-playing captain Nigel Edwards labelled Law’s fate “unfortunate”. Law’s fellow Aberdonian, Byrne, made his feelings known via Twitter. “We have a very strong team, but it would be even stronger with David Law,” said the Arizona State University graduate. “Not going to comment further or I will get into trouble.”

The same sort of thing was going on in the States. The non-selection of one John Petersen, a player good enough to win that year’s NCAA Championship and lose a Nationwide Tour event by one stroke, was greeted with widespread derision and consternation across the pond. One observer with close ties to the United States Golf Association (whose committee picks the team) called the decision to omit Petersen “one that has no logical or rational reason”. Which sounds familiar.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that we have never – not even once – gone into Walker Cup battle with our ten best players. Too often, nationalistic prejudices have more influence on the make-up of the team than does talent. So do personalities. A face that fits can be more important than a swing that flows.

With a selector from each home country invariably and shamelessly pushing for his “own guys”, ending up with the strongest side becomes all but impossible. Think about it. If the ten best players happen to be exclusively Irish or all English (I was going to say Welsh, but that would just be silly) that would never be the team selected. The make-up and typically nationalistic fervour of the selection committee precludes even the slightest chance of that happening.

To be fair, perhaps the most infamous selectorial cock-up wasn’t perpetrated in the Walker Cup. That great honour must go to the band of women from the Ladies Golf Union charged with choosing the 1984 GB&I Curtis Cup squad that would go on to – narrowly – lose to the Americans at Muirfield. At a time when she was the leading women golfer in the British Isles – amateur or professional – those tweed-skirted buffoons found a way to justify leaving out Gillian Stewart and anyone else born north of the border.

Stewart did find a way to extract a small measure of revenge. As first reserve, she was sent complimentary tickets. One of those she passed to a friend, who walked the course for two days wearing a badge that said, “no dogs, no cameras” and, written by Stewart, “no Scots”. She could have added “no logic”, but that would have been too true to be even remotely funny.

Still, there is a bright side to all of this. For the true enthusiasts, the Walker Cup represents a gilt-edged opportunity to watch the stars of the near future. Over the years, almost every great player from either side of the Atlantic has participated. Jack Nicklaus was a member of the US team at Muirfield in 1959 and Tiger Woods wore red, white and blue at Royal Porthcawl 36 years later.

On the GB& I side, two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington is a three-time Walker Cup player. 2013 US Open champion Justin Rose played in 1997. And the 2001 team that emerged victorious at Sea Island contained a future US Open winner in Graeme McDowell and world No.1 in Luke Donald. So buck the prevailing trend and 
pay attention. The Walker Cup, for all its faults, remains one of golf’s more interesting events.