There is art and science at play when Walker Cup captains make their pairing selections
Austin Greaser of the United States hits an approach shot on the 18th hole during a practice round.
ANDREWS, Scotland — In the run-up to any team contest, a few sporting metaphors invariably spring to mind when it comes to the various decisions, behavior and carefully considered comments required of the two captains. “Jockeying for position” comes to mind. So does “shadow boxing.” And, from cricket, “playing a straight bat.”
Still, after all the preamble has been taken care of, a “show of hands” is inevitably required. In the context of this 49th edition of the Walker Cup matches between the United States and Great Britain & Ireland, on the eve of the event non-playing skippers Mike McCoy and Stuart Wilson were required to reveal who will represent their sides—and in what order—in the opening day foursomes and singles.
The foursomes typically involve most thought. Especially unfamiliar to the American players, the format of alternating shots is something of a dark art and one where things can sometimes go disastrously wrong. Perhaps the most difficult role in golf, for example, is playing second-fiddle to a partner who is playing markedly better than you are. Nowhere is there more pressure not to let the other down.
Still, even the most careful planning can go astray. Pairing two players in the hope that they will mesh was, for long enough, a decision made on gut instinct. Maybe the thinking went as far as teaming two pals together and avoiding a scenario where there might be a personality clash. But these days the rise of statistical analysis has turned that art form into more and more of a science, one that this weekend is complicated by the configuration of the holes on the Old Course at St Andrews.
“We’ve tried to look at this in a bit of depth, but with a par 3 on the front that's even and a par 3 on the back that's odd, and vice versa with the par 5s, it gets difficult,” agreed GB&I’s Wilson, who knows a thing or two about the most famous course in golf, having won the Amateur Championship here in 2003. “So, if a pair is playing regulation golf, everybody is going to be doing the same amount of putting. It’s the same coming in or going out. If you're a strong wedge player, the same applies. Going out 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 are your holes, then on the back it is 10, 12, 14, 16, 18.
“We do a bit of matching with personalities too, but we've probably got 10 different personalities here,” he continued. “So, while we’ve looked at possible pairings and done a lot of the numbers and stats and things, I don't think we could have done any better of a job than putting 10 balls in a hat and pulling them out. The team is that close-knit.”
As for McCoy, the American captain owned up to having included “a little bit of everything”—art and science—within his own decision-making process.
“We have certain players that have a quicker rhythm,” pointed out the Iowa native, a member of the losing American side at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2015. “We have players that have played together a lot and are very close friends. So they obviously know each other's games well. They match up well. We have looked some at who are our better drivers and who are our better wedge players. We’ve put those types of combinations together.”
And, like Wilson, McCoy is well aware of the Old Course’s famous foibles when it comes to a layout containing 14 par 4s.
“We spent some time working on that, and it took a day or two for everybody to come to agreement what made the most sense,” continued McCoy. “We obviously tried some other combinations if we do have to break a couple teams up for Sunday. We've worked with some other combinations. But everybody knows whether they're odd or even.”
“Seconds out,” let the action begin:
Gordon Sargent-Dylan Menante (US) vs. Barclay Brown-Mark Power (GB&I)
Caleb Surratt-Ben James (US) vs. Callum Scott-Connor Graham (GB&I)
Preston Summerhays-David Ford (US) vs. Matthew McClean-John Gough (GB&I)
Nick Dunlap-Stewart Hagestad (US) vs. Alex Maguire-James Ashfield (GB&I)
Surratt (US) vs. Brown (GB&I)
Nick Gabrelick (US) vs. Scott (GB&I)
Sargent (US) vs. Jack Bigham (GB&I)
Austin Greaser (US) vs. Liam Nolan (GB&I)
Ford (US) vs. Power (GB&I)
Summerhays (US) vs. McClean (GB&I)
Hagestad (US) vs. Maguire (GB&I)
Dunlap (US) vs. Gough (GB&I)