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A Walker Cup Turns On A Dime

by John Hopkins - September 11, 2017

LOS ANGELES | Braden Thornberry prowled intently. His ball was to the left of and above the ninth green. There were 20 yards of uneven grass just to get to the putting surface. A sprinkler head lay almost in his path. He putted his ball and then, when it stopped on the edge of the green and when his caddie had pointed to precisely where he should aim with his tricky putt, what did he do? He holed it, much to the dismay of Harry Ellis, his opponent. It was one of the most improbable pars of the Walker Cup.

So it was the putting that did it, was it? That was the most obvious difference between GB&I, the holders, and the US at the 46th Walker Cup, was it? So that was why the US nosed ahead, 8-7, in the past 15 Walker Cup matches?

In recent years, team competitions, whether Ryder, Solheim, Walker or Curtis cups, often have gone to the team who putted better, and during the week leading up to this biennial event a local caddie who was working for GB&I had forecast that the visitors would struggle with the speed of the big, undulating greens at Los Angeles Country Club, a brawny course if ever there was one. “GB&I are long and good but the greens are going to get them,” a caddie said.

But actually it wasn’t the putting that did it. Team US putted better than GB&I on Saturday morning and it looked as though conventional wisdom was being borne out. That afternoon I changed my mind, based on the evidence of a couple of hours spent basking in the sunshine behind the ninth green. Sixteen competitors played this hole and two of them three-putted it – Stewart Hagestad and Cameron Champ, both Americans.

Much more significant was a momentum change over perhaps 120 minutes during that afternoon’s singles. At 2:30, GB&I looked as though they might take the eight singles matches by 5-3 or even 6-2. Ellis, Connor Syme, Jack Singh Brar, Matthew Jordan, Robert MacIntyre and Scott Gregory were all ahead in their matches against Thornberry, Norman Xiong, Hagestad, Will Zalatoris, Champ and Maverick McNealy, respectively.

By 4:30 it had all been turned upside down and only Singh Brar, a polished player and person, and MacIntyre, who had a runaway victory against Champ, had won. This was the time when the Walker Cup went west. At the start of Saturday’s singles the score was 2-2; at the end of it the US led, 8-4.

What had happened? Did GB&I tire in the heat? Did they become dehydrated or lose concentration? How can momentum spread so quickly over a sprawling golf course when players are as far as 800 yards apart from one another and the Walker Cup does not have the same communications between players, vice captains and captains as the Ryder Cup?

“It was nothing to do with me,” John “Spider” Miller, the US captain, said. “I would say it was innate in the players. They’re all fiercely competitive. They have a certain toughness and they don’t like to lose. I saw a lot of spirit out there. I saw guys that reached out and pulled something out.”

Miller might have added how proud and relieved he was, too, because after being the losing captain at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2015, and having been seen with his head bent and what looked suspiciously like tears in his eyes at the closing ceremony, he wanted nothing more than a victory. He believed that two years ago his team hadn’t started quickly enough and he went out of his way to make sure this didn’t happen again.

There was one stroke that summed up the revival by the US in the first day’s singles and that was Thornberry’s 6-iron up the 18th. It was the shot of a man in complete control, one who, having wrestled his man to the floor, now trod on his throat. The ball ended within inches of the hole.

In the end though it wasn’t solely that the US team might have putted better over the two days or that GB&I looked tired on Saturday afternoon or less accomplished at getting down in two from 100 yards, as had happened at National Golf Links four years ago. It was certainly nothing to do with the captaincy of Andy Ingram, who took over the job only a week or so earlier. With his quiet confidence and ready smile, he seemed booted and spurred for the task.

It was simply that the US players appeared more comfortable and played better than those from GB&I. Sometimes the world rankings have little relevance in a match-play situation. This time, with the US having seven of the top 12 and GB&I two, they were borne out. The US were better and played better.

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