If history is a reliable guide, then the events that transpired this past weekend in Southampton, N.Y. could be thought of as the golf world’s equivalent of witnessing Halley’s Comet shoot through the night sky. After all, this wasn’t just any Walker Cup—this was a Walker Cup at the National Golf Links of America, the club that hosted the inaugural matches way back in 1922 and that hadn’t opened its gates to an event of this size ever since. Judging from the comportment and enthusiasm of the galleries that flowed through the grounds, this fact was not lost on many. The American side came through in decisive fashion, winning 17–9, though most would probably say that this was a relatively minor detail in a weekend that affirmed the best values the game of golf has to offer.
Conceived in the wake of WWI by George Walker (grandfather of Pres. George H.W. Bush), the Cup was intended to nourish transatlantic friendship through amateur competition. Given that Walker was a founding member of National and a friend of Charles Blair Macdonald, there was never much doubt where the first edition of the Cup would be held. “Where else would they do it?” says historian Rand Jerris of the USGA. “It screamed NGLA. It was a perfect fit.” Jerris points out that Macdonald, while best known for studying the famous holes of Great Britain, also studied its club culture and social life—sportsmanship, camaraderie, leadership, respect for the game. Adds Jerris: “He wanted to imbue National with the best of those structures, as well.”
The Great Britain and Ireland team that crossed the pond on the steamship Carmania in the summer of ’22 was the first to come to America as an official body. Their voyage was not wholly uneventful. As Cyril Tolley recalled in his autobiography: “The games steward very resourcefully rigged up a practice driving range in the stern of the ship. Mr. John Caven, in trying to play an iron shot, might have caused great havoc in the Marconi room. His ball carried the stop netting and hit the mast, narrowly missing the wireless aerial, and disappearing into the sea.” The visiting team went on to tour some of the finer clubs of New York and Philadelphia, including the Westchester Biltmore (now Westchester CC), Piping Rock and Pine Valley, before settling in at National for Walker Cup week.
Long before Magic, Bird and Jordan, American golf had its own “Dream Team” in the ’22 Walker Cup squad, which featured legends like Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans at the top of the lineup as well as up-and-coming stars like Yale’s Jess Sweetser. Despite being the last man on the roster, the 20-year-old Sweetser was far from a Christian Laettner-like figure in this Dream Team analogy: The week after the Walker Cup, he would trounce Bobby Jones 8 and 7 on his way to winning the U.S. Amateur at Brookline. That should give a sense of the depth of talent the American side sent to National.
“History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” Mark Twain once said, and there a number of notable parallels between ’22 and ’13. For one, in both years heavy rains in the days preceding play impacted playing conditions. In the first Walker Cup, the GB&I team had spent the entire week beforehand practicing on a blazing firm-and-fast National, only to find a softer course in competition. The American team, by contrast, waltzed in late and only played a single round on the Sunday before play began, leading Cyril Tolley to suggest that “…consequently, the change in the nature of the ground did not bother them so much as it did us.”
The 2013 matches echoed this to an extent. Even after torrential downpours on Long Island’s East End, conditions were reasonably firm—and most would agree it was a beautiful presentation by National’s superintendent Bill Salinetti and his staff—but asked after the matches if National had played anything like the links designs familiar to the GB&I side, U.S. Amateur champ Matthew Fitzpatrick said, “It was starting to toward the end…but it’s too late now.”
Then as now, though, National would determine the victorious side on the greens. Grantland Rice headlined his game story for The American Golfer with “The Pressure of the Putting Blade.” “The invaders fought out a good, game fight,” he wrote, “and in most cases well held their own up to the greens. But once in the immediate vicinity of the cup they had no putting touch to match the almost unerring strokes of such good putters as Jesse Guilford, Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones.” For his part, Bernard Darwin, who was covering the matches for the Times of London and was subsequently press-ganged into the playing lineup due to the emergency tonsillitis of GB&I Captain Robert Harris, filed an extensive post-mortem inquiry as to why the Americans were superior on the greens.
This time around, GB&I Captain Nigel Edwards came up with a similar answer: “If each of the 10 [GB&I] players had holed two more putts from six feet, then there would be a lot of difference in the matches,” he said. One tense battle on Sunday morning illustrated the captain’s point. The match pitted Cal-Berkeley teammates Max Homa and Michael Kim against British Am champ Garrick Porteous and 2011 Walker Cup star Rhys Pugh. While Pugh dropped a 60-foot bomb on the 2nd hole to take the early lead, he couldn’t convert when it counted most. On the final two holes, Homa rolled in pressure-packed putts that Pugh missed as the U.S. turned a 1-Down deficit into a 1-Up victory.
While the disappointed faces of the GB&I players during the closing ceremony showed that the competition does indeed matter—very much so—this event is about so much more than winning and losing. “The real purpose of the Walker Cup,” says Rand Jerris, “is the building of relationships.” This year that goal was enhanced by the inclusion of two mid-amateurs—Todd White and Nathan Smith—both of whom provided valuable mentorship to the collegians and more than held their own in competition. However, it must be said that the building of relationships also extends outside the ropes (the concept of ropes being mostly hypothetical here, as galleries have wandering latitude to rival the Brora sheep). The Walker Cup is unrivaled among golf tournaments as a social gathering. Out on the course it’s a day of chance meetings with friends both old and new, and in between encounters the people-watching is first-rate. (Best celebrity sighting: Adam Scott. Best logo sighting: Koch Industries.) On Saturday, my father, a non-golfer who hadn’t set foot on a course in a full 20 years, came out for a walk. As he took in the sights—Macdonald’s iconic windmill, the view down the 17th and out to Peconic Bay, the epic climb to the skyline green of the 18th—the proverbial light bulb went off…again and again. “I knew this place would be special,” he finally said. “But I wasn’t prepared for this.”
“Golf, on this side of the water, has never known two greater days,” wrote Grantland Rice in concluding his piece. “The first battle for the Walker Cup must go down to dust-covered history as an unqualified success.” Some 90 years later, this observer can’t help but feel just as fortunate to have witnessed the Cup’s return to its spiritual home—the National Golf Links of America.