September 12, 2009

Time Capsule

The Walker Cup is a competition reminiscent of another era -- for better or worse

The fact that galleries are able to walk the fairways with players is one of the charms of the Walker Cup.

The fact that galleries are able to walk the fairways with players is one of the charms of the Walker Cup.

ARDMORE, Pa. -- There is much about the Walker Cup that merits celebration. In so many ways, the biennial match that pits the leading amateurs of Great Britain & Ireland against their American counterparts continues to represent all that is worth preserving in the greatest game of all. A throwback to a bygone age, the feel-good blend of friendly competition and cozy camaraderie recalls a golden era when something other than the professional tours actually mattered.

At the Walker Cup spectators walk the fairways alongside the players. At the Walker Cup the contest is unsullied by the overt commercialism of the Ryder and Presidents Cups. At the Walker Cup the opposing players do seem to interact with something akin to genuine kinship, even during their matches. At the Walker Cup, the result is important, but it isn't everything.

Even the ever-stuffy USGA seems to understand the distinction. On the sodden eve of the matches, senior director of rules and competitions, Mike Davis, declared the Walker Cup "a competition, not a championship." So, at least according to Davis, a weather delay would not necessarily have stretched the event into a third day. "If need be, three series of matches will probably be enough to identify a winner," he said.

It helps the Walker Cup, too, that it is routinely played on genuinely terrific courses on both sides of the Atlantic. The same cannot be said for its professional equivalent. In reverse order, the last five Walker Cups have been played at Merion, Royal County Down, Chicago Golf Club, Ganton and Ocean Forest. The last five Ryder Cups have taken place at Valhalla, the K Club, Oakland Hills, The Belfry and The Country Club. Almost universally brilliant versus mediocre-to-good: No contest.

Indeed, Merion the course proved to be the perfect host for match play at this level. With its endlessly fascinating blend of very long and very short holes, the 6,846-yard 2013 U.S. Open venue is ideal for head-to-head contests in which only a few of the participants routinely hit 300-yard-plus drives; at almost every hole something exciting is likely to happen and invariably it does.

Still, even the most cursory inspection of the compact premises does make one wonder how America's national championship is going to squeeze itself in. The depressing thoughts that the pin positions will be daft, the greens as concrete and the rough out of control are hard to dispel. All of which will occur -- as so often in this era of technological madness -- because of a golf ball that flies too far and too straight. So, yet again, true golfing quality is likely to be compromised in favor of economic considerations and/or fear of legal action from equipment manufacturers.

Anyway, the future is then. For now, let's stay positive. Bobby Jones loved the Walker Cup. So did Jack Nicklaus, who appeared in two. And Phil Mickelson is rumored to have had a pretty good time at Portmarnock in 1991 (even if he controversially expressed disappointment with the esthetic qualities of Ireland's women).

Maybe only Tiger, who has never really embraced the concept of team in golf, has missed the point of all the backslapping, hand-shaking and self congratulatory bonhomie that goes with an occasion that debuted as far back as 1922. In 1995, as the closing dinner was being held after the matches at Royal Porthcawl, the future world No. 1 was reportedly spotted scoffing a Big Mac in nearby Cardiff.

I have a theory about that supposed snub, however. Maybe the immature and impecunious Tiger just wanted to get away from the rich white folks for a while. Maybe his younger self just wasn't comfortable in a Walker Cup environment for reasons that had nothing to do with his uniquely driven personality or an adolescent craving for junk food. Based solely on the 42nd installment that saw a clearly superior U.S. side bludgeon GB&I to the tune of 16 ½ - 9 ½ over the last couple of days, it would be hard to blame him. Everywhere one looked at Merion, a sea of white, predominantly preppy faces peered back. A broad cross-section of society this most certainly was not.

Golf cannot have it both ways -- exclusive and inclusive. It cannot continue to claim that anything and everything is being done to open up the game to all, while at the same time shamelessly perpetuating the sad old stereotypes that so color the opinions of outsiders. It cannot continue, for example, to secrete Walker Cups and the like in affluent white suburbia.

Twice last week I took a cab from downtown Philadelphia to Merion. On neither occasion had the driver -- one a black American, the other an Indian immigrant -- heard of either the club or the ongoing matches. Of course, there was nothing obvious to help them in that regard. The first sign I see for "Walker Cup" or "Merion GC" will also be the next.

So it is that, the perpetuation of what some proudly call tradition might also be interpreted as standing by, ostrich-like, as the wider world flashes by. Laughably, just about the only mention of change I heard at Merion was the possibility of extending the next Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen (another wonderful venue) from two days to three. Strange that; there was me thinking the event already lasts a whole week -- a five-day cocktail party with two days of golf thrown in. But I digress. Over the last decade or so, golf has been seen to make strenuous efforts to become more diverse. The First Tee program, to name but one such body, has attempted to introduce the game to an audience that is not overwhelmingly Caucasian. For that, they are to be congratulated. But, judging by the last two days of my life, none of it is working. Nor do many within golf's smugly self-perpetuating establishment seem to care that blue blood and black skin remain so shamefully segregated within the country club world.

If it is ever to be a color-blind game for the masses, golf still has a long way to go.