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Is the U.S. ready to eat at the Walker Cup?

By Ryan Herrington

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y.—
The competitive meal that is the Walker Cup is prepared with its own special recipe: two years of slow-cooked anticipation followed by two days of hard-boiled drama.

On the eve of the 44th serving, the players and captains from the United States and Great Britain & Ireland who will dine at the main table—a perfectly arranged National GL of America—looked anxious to eat.

The question now: Who is more hungry?

"I'm here to win," said Nigel Edwards who hopes to keep his record as captain unblemished after leading GB&I to an upset win over the Americans at Royal Aberdeen in 2011 and will be aided by the reigning U.S. Amateur (Matt Fitzpatrick) and British Amateur (Garrick Porteous) champions. 
 
The same is true for Jim Holtgrieve, although the U.S. captain doesn't make it his first priority. While leaving Scotland two years ago disappointed his 10-man squad ended the U.S. three-match win streak, Holtgrieve came away with a renewed sense that the biennial competition was about more than the end result.

So it was that Holtgrieve inspired the USGA's new mandate that at least two mid-amateurs be part of future Walker Cup teams, convinced their presence would lead to a richer experience for the entire team on the personal level in terms of developing attachments and life-long bonds.

Yet anyone who thinks the U.S. side will be any less intent on winning this weekend with 35-year-old Nathan Smith and 45-year-old Todd White on the roster is fooling themselves. The 2013 squad remains packed with college All-Americans that have made it their (amateur) life's work to play in this event and not just so they can walk away with a closet full of red, white and blue garb. They all know what happened two years ago without returning team members Patrick Rodgers and Smith needing to remind them.

And they collectively don't want to see it happened again.

"It's great to represent your country and [make] friendships for life and different things like that, but obviously it's a lot more fun to win," said Smith, who knows first-hand from being in the victorious U.S. team at Merion in 2009. "I didn't like over there at Aberdeen the crowd going crazy and different things and you lose. That's just not fun."

As was the case in 2011, the Americans come into this year's match the favorites. It's natural, then, for Holtgrieve to fear some deja vu, but he has reason not to worry.

For starters, he'll have the crowd on his team's side in Long Island, which will no doubt provide an emotion lift for the U.S. during critical moments in tight individual matches. Of course spectators don't play any shots, but having their support can help inspire players in pressure situations. 

Secondly, Holtgrieve's side is more familiar with the course than it was at Royal Aberdeen. When the 10-man team was finalized after the U.S. Amateur, Holtgrieve got them together for a two-day skull session at National, host of the first Walker Cup back in 1922. It was then that the players received the full indoctrination into the rich history of the venue, allowing that to soak in so upon arriving for final preparations this week they could concentrate on smaller details rather than trying to get a general feel for the design. After Friday's practice round, the team has played the course nine times, seeing C.B. Macdonald's treasure under various conditions and coming to appreciate its character.

Still, the intangible that likely will benefit the Americans the most is the fact that they appear to be a more unified bunch than in year's past.  "I notice such a difference between this team and the '11 team, how much camaraderie there is," said Rodgers. "We all get along really great. We're just all really close, and I think that is kind of unique."

In part this is the result of serendipity as much as smart planning. That three members of the squad—Justin Thomas, Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt—are former teammates at Alabama, having helped the Crimson Tide win the NCAA title last June, wasn't necessarily something the USGA international team selection committee could bank on. That three other members—Michael Kim, Michael Weaver and Max Homa—played together at California (winning 17 college titles the last two seasons) before earning spots on Team USA establishes a familiarity among the American squad that could proved critical.

Particularly so when it comes to Saturday and Sunday morning foursomes, a format that the U.S. often struggles with. Such was the case in 2011, when Holtgrieve's team went 1.5-6.5, in large part explaining why they lost 14-12 overall. Seemingly any improvement in this area could be enough to push the U.S. to victory.

"We're kind of relaxed," Holtgrieve said in describing his team's mood. "I think everything is good, and the guys are ready to go."

Indeed, bring on the meal.

****

SATURDAY FOURSOMES
7:15 a.m.—Nathan Kimsey and Max Orrin, GB&I vs. Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt, USA
7:30 a.m.—Matt Fitzpatrick and Neil Raymond, GB&I vs. Jordan NIebrugge and Nathan Smith, USA
7:45 a.m.—Garrick Porteous and Rhys Pugh, GB&I vs. Michael Weaver and Todd White, USA
8 a.m.—Gavin Moynihan and Kevin Phelan, GB&I vs. Patrick Rodgers and Justin Thomas, USA

SATURDAY SINGLES
1 p.m.—Neil Raymond, GB&I vs. Bobby Wyatt, USA
1:11 p.m.—Max Orrin, GB&I vs. Max Homa, USA
1:22 p.m.—Callum Shinkwin, GB&I vs. Michael Kim, USA
1:33 p.m.—Jordan Smith, GB&I vs. Cory Whitsett, USA
1:44 p.m.—Garrick Porteous, GB&I vs. Jordan Niebrugge, USA
1:55 p.m.—Matt Fitzpatrick, GB&I vs. Michael Weaver, USA
2:06 p.m.—Nathan Kimsey, GB&I vs. Justin Thomas, USA
2:17 p.m.—Gavin Moynihan, GB&I vs. Patrick Rodgers, USA
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