HOYLAKE, England — From a Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh point of view, the Walker Cup was for long enough an exercise in almost total futility. Competing as Great Britain & Ireland, the overall record of the four “home nations” in the biennial contest with the United States that began in 1922 at the National Golf Links of America is a pretty pathetic 9-36-1.
Things are changing though. Six of the Old World’s nine victories have been achieved within the last quarter century, a fact that both underlines the inequities existing before 1995 and a new era of competitiveness since.
A closer look at the record-book also reveals a more intriguing statistic. While the matches have been contested by equally matched teams of 10 since 1969, before that the numbers on both sides varied regularly. Back in 1922, each side contained seven players. But things soon changed. And not as you might expect. One year later at St. Andrews, the Americans showed up with 10 players, only to find that the opposition had 11 to choose from.
And so it went on. On five occasions—1936, 1949, 1953, 1965 and 1967—the U.S squad outnumbered the opposition. Twice as often, however, the numerical advantage went to the GB&I team. In 1926, in fact, the home side at St. Andrews had two more players than the visitors—and still lost.
Why this apparent oddity occurred so often remains a bit of a mystery. Even the historians within the R&A are at a loss to explain how it took almost half-a-century to decide both sides should contain the same number of players.
With arithmetical parity has come a more interesting competition, especially in the 21st century. Any recent trend has centered more on the superiority of the home sides than on any one-sided domination. Only twice in this millennium has the away team triumphed. In 2001, GB&I won at Ocean Forest in Georgia. And six years later the U.S. claimed the trophy at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. Otherwise, home advantage has proved crucial.
None of which will be bothering either team at Royal Liverpool this weekend. In contrast with 1983, the last time the matches were played over the Hoylake links, both sides are almost exclusively populated by men in their late teens and early 20s. (Thirty-six years ago, four members of the U.S. team were in their 30s, as well as two for GB&I). With that youth, comes an endearing ignorance. Asked what the legendary crooner, Bing Crosby, father of U.S. captain Nathaniel, meant to them, three members of the visiting squad struggled.
“My mom told me that my great-grandmother would always have his records playing during the holidays,” said U.S. Amateur runner-up John Augenstein.
“I know that he was an incredible entertainer and that he played in lots of pro-ams,” said Cole Hammer, the No. 1 ranked amateur golfer in the world.
“The captain speaks very highly of him,” added Brandon Wu. “It’s all a little before our time. But we all recognize his name for sure.”
Other than those moments of frivolity—and a brief detour into the intricacies of cricket—the main theme of the American’s joint press conference was a shared impatience to get going. Having been in England for six long days, a desire to play competitive rather than social golf was all too apparent.
“We’re ready to get out there and play,” said Augenstein, neatly summing up the collective mood.
The same could be said for the home side. Texas Tech student Sandy Scott, winner of the recent Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach and native of Nairn in Scotland, is well used to the blustery conditions the players have endured over the last few days. In turn, he can provide a brief primer on what the golf world can expect to see over the next two days.
“Hitting the ball low is so important,” said the 21-year old. “I find starting the ball far enough left in a left-to-right wind is especially difficult. So getting the ball in play is key. I can see holes being all but decided by the tee shots. Having said that, it is possible to run the ball onto many of the greens here. And around them there are many options available. You can putt, chip, hit flop shots, anything really.
“But the most important factor for all of us will be judging the wind, even if it is not supposed to be as strong over the next two days,” Scott continued. “That won’t matter too much though. The winds here are so much heavier than in the U.S. So the American lads will have had some adjusting to do.”
Still, there is more to match play golf in a team environment than just hitting good shots. A bit of bonding never hurts and the GB& I side have benefited from a talk given by former Welsh Guards infantryman, Stewart Harris, a veteran of such war-torn places as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland.
“His experiences were pretty inspirational,” says Scotland’s Euan Walker, one of the older members of the GB&I squad at 24. “He spoke to us a lot about mental attitude under pressure. His stories were certainly inspirational. Any hardships we face over the weekend will be nothing compared to what he has endured in his life. But the principles are applicable. Whatever happens out there, you cannot let anything alter your attitude for the next shot or the next hole. There is nothing an opponent likes more than seeing negative body language. So we’ll be showing no weakness and remaining strong and positive throughout.”
Indeed. But enough of the “phoney war” stuff. Let’s get to it.