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U.S. needs better back-nine play to win Walker Cup

ABERDEEN, Scotland--If you're looking for an explanation why the United States trails Great Britain & Ireland after Saturday's play at the Walker Cup for the first time since 1995--the Americans finding themselves at the wrong end of the day's 7-5 score--search no further than their play on the back nine at Royal Aberdeen GC.

During the morning foursomes matches, the U.S. was a collective 12 over par with no birdies on the inward holes at the Balgownie Links, dropping three of the four matches. The afternoon didn't get much better. Taking out a three-under performance from Harris English, the remaining seven Americans on the course for the singles matches shot a combined 13 over on the back nine, with only four birdies among them.

Still, U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve says his squad remains confident it can claim the Cup Sunday for the fourth straight time. "There was great golf," Holtgrieve said. "And yeah, it's 7-5, but I don't think that's certainly a position that is going to create a problem for us not sleeping tonight. … We are OK."

During a singles session where the leader board seemed to change more quickly than the Aberdeen weather, the Americans at one point appeared to be rallying from their a.m. stumble. Peter Uihlein played steady golf in taking out GB&I's top player, Tom Lewis, 2 and 1. The end of that match came just minutes before Jordan Spieth finished off GB&I's Jack Senior, 3 and 2.

When English closed out his match with Andy Sullivan, 2 and 1, the overall score stood at 4-3 in favor of the U.S. with four of the final five matches all square. Yet in the next 90 minutes, the GB&I side walked off with four of the remaining five points,

Most impressive was the rally from GB&I's youngest player, Rhys Pugh. The 17-year-old Welshman watched as his opponent, Patrick Rodgers, birdied the first five holes and six of the first seven. "It was probably the best I've ever seen anyone play those first five holes," Pugh said.

Impressively, Pugh was only 3 down after seven, and he slowly took back control of the match, winning the ninth, 10th and 13th holes with pars to square the match, then taking the lead with another par on the 14th. A birdie on the 16th hole eventually sealed a 2-and-1 outcome.

"I've got a lot of faith in him, his ability," said GB&I captain Nigel Edwards, a fellow Welshman who played with him in various team matches. "He's very mature for 17. He knows how to get his ball around the golf course and he's very patient. He's a great lad."

After Pugh's win, GB&I gained full points from Steven Brown (who defeated Russell Henley, 1 up), James Byrne (who holed a 65-foot birdie putt on the 17th to close out his match with Nathan Smith, 2 and 1) and Paul Cutler (who won the 16th and 17th holes with pars to defeat Kelly Kraft, 2 and 1).

If not for English's impressive 2-and-1 comeback win against Sullivan, the U.S. deficit would be even greater. Sullivan birdied four straight holes (Nos. 2-5) to take a 3-up lead, then made another birdie on the seventh to get to 4 up. Like Pugh, though, English didn't get down. Pars on the eighth and ninth holes cut the Sullivan's lead to 2 up. Then, after Sullivan won the 10th with a par, he hit his tee shot on the par-3 11th to two feet, a birdie that English would concede. The American, meanwhile, had a 75-foot birdie try from off the green to halve the hole, a putt he proceeded to hole.

"That gave me some momentum," English said. "I felt like it turned the tide with the match."

Consecutive pars on the 13th and 14th holes from English gave him the lead for the first time all day and a birdie on the 16th essentially clinched the match for the recent Georgia graduate.

"You can't get down on yourself, that's the main thing about match play," English said. "Anything can happen. He was playing well the front nine, and I was playing pretty well except for one hole. And I was 4 down. He had it going, but I knew if I kept playing my game, we'd see what happened."

If English can transfer that mindset to the rest of his squad, the Americans still have a good chance of writing a happy ending to the weekend's saga. But to do that, they'll have to forget the ugliness of Saturday and embrace the idea that the matches can be won if they play better on the back nine come Sunday.

*****
 
SUNDAY SCHEDULE
(all times local; GB&I players listed first)

MORNING FOURSOMES
8:30 a.m.—Tom Lewis/Michael Stewart vs. Jordan Spieth/Patrick Rodgers
8:40—Jack Senior/Andy Sullivan vs. Peter Uihlein/Harris English
8:50—Paul Cutler/Alan Dunbar vs. Kelly Kraft/Blayne Barber
9:00—James Byrne/Rhys Pugh vs. Patrick Cantlay/Chris Williams

AFTERNOON SINGLES
1:15 p.m.—Tom Lewis vs. Russell Henley
1:25—Andy Sullivan vs. Jordan Spieth
1:35—Jack Senior vs. Nathan Smith
1:45—Michael Stewart vs. Patrick Rodgers
1:55—Stiggy Hodgson vs. Peter Uihlein
2:05—Steven Brown vs. Blayne Barber
2:15—Rhys Pugh vs. Kelly Kraft
2:25—Alan Dunbar vs. Chris Williams
2:35—James Byrne vs. Harris English
2:45—Paul Cutler vs. Patrick Cantlay

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July 28, 2014

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