The best U.S. Walker Cup team in history also might have been the most contentious

News

Almost a half century after its last visit, and exactly 100 years after its first, the Walker Cup is heading home. Back to the “Home of Golf” that is. For the first time since 1975, the match between the leading amateurs from the United States and those from Great Britain & Ireland will take place this weekend over the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Time out for a big call. Forget the 2007 American team that included Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Chris Kirk and Kyle Stanley. And dismiss the claims of a 2017 crew that boasted the likes of Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler, Will Zalatoris, Cameron Champ and Maverick McNealy. Both powerful squads, no doubt. But the 1975 side, it says here, is at least for now the best U.S. Walker Cup team in history.

The evidence for that bold claim is vivid indeed. Three members of the 10-player squad led by captain Ed Updegraff went on to become major champions: Curtis Strange, Craig Stadler and Jerry Pate. And three more, George Burns, Jay Haas and Gary Koch, played with more than a little success professionally. In all, those six men won 57 PGA Tour events and four Grand Slam championships.

That’s impressive enough, but three of the four remaining members, Dick Siderowf, Vinny Giles and Bill Campbell, won either or both the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur while remaining career amateurs. With John Grace (an eventual member of the Texas and Michigan Golf Hall of Fames) rounding out the squad, this was a team with real depth, top to bottom.

But it was also a group under an unusual level of pressure. Only four years before at St. Andrews, the GB&I side had pulled off a massive upset of an American team boasting the likes of Tom Kite and Lanny Watkins to record what was its only Walker Cup victory between 1938 and 1989.

“There was a different vibe in our team going into the 1975 matches, if only because we had won in 1971,” says George MacGregor, a future R&A captain who played for GB&I both years. “Back then, it was quite unexpected. We hadn’t won in more than 30 years. So this time round there was a greater expectation.”

Equally, for the visitors, where Giles (age 32) and Campbell (age 52) were the lone returning players from 1971, a repeat of what was almost unthinkable would be, well, completely unthinkable in a series that today the U.S. leads 38-9-1.

“Our captain had us over there early,” Koch, a 22-year-old at the time who played college golf at Florida, recalls. “We played a lot of practice rounds, more than once playing 36 holes a day. His theory was that the 1971 team did not know the course well enough. I think we got there Monday morning and we were out there twice a day. He had a plan that we needed to know the course as well as possible.”

That made sense, as more than half the U.S. team (Koch included) had never before set foot on golf’s most famous course, a place notorious for its foibles and one where local knowledge is so often the difference between success and failure. But the Americans proved to be quick learners.

“We had to deal with things we had never seen before,” Strange, the reigning NCAA champion from Wake Forest and the youngest American on the team at 20, says. “You have to be there. You can’t get it from a book. The shots inside 100 yards were amazing to us. The trajectory was different. Then there was the bounce and roll of the ball after it landed. Over there, it’s a game played on the ground. We were all taken aback by the Valley of Sin on the 18th. Every day we all hit maybe a dozen balls, running the shots up there.”

Koch, too, was embarking on what has turned into a lifelong love affair with links golf. Twice, the Louisiana native would go on to be low American in the Open Championship.

“What was fun for me was that the course and the shots it asked us to hit got me into what I call ‘play mode,’” says the six-time PGA Tour winner. “Not ‘swing mode.’ It was so different, bouncing the ball in. It brought out my creative side more than my analytic side.”

“When we arrived, I was looking out at the course and asking where we were going to play,” Haas, Strange’s 21-year-old teammate at Wake, adds. “I was told, ‘right there.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was brown and didn’t look like anything. And on our first practice round I’m not sure the cups hadn’t been moved in more than a week. The edges were all broken down. We were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.”

Across the aisle, GB&I captain David Marsh (who played in ’71) was leading a side containing three other returnees (Scots Hugh Stuart and Charlie Green, and MacGregor) from 1971. But 48 years ago, the GB&I squad was amateur in the true sense of the word.

“The Walker Cup was a softer competition back then, much more than it is now,” Siderowf, 37 at the time, says today. “The atmosphere was different. Now it’s like a fight or a war.”

Recall if you will this was an era before GB&I players made their way to American universities as a highly competitive prelude to a professional career in golf. Of the home players, only future Ryder Cup captain Mark James—who claims to have “no memory” of a Walker Cup in which he won three points from his four games—would go on to any kind of success in the paid ranks. Seven of the 10 never turned professional.

“They didn’t have any college kids,” Haas confirms. “And some of them were in their 30s. We thought they were ancient.”

So the stage was set, one the younger members of the American side were determined to enjoy. Koch talks of trips into the Auld Grey Toon to sample fish suppers wrapped in newspaper. And Strange and Haas spent an enraptured hour watching legendary clubmaker Laurie Auchterlonie lovingly construct a wooden-headed driver.

Ah, but before play would even begin, there was trouble in the American camp. Immediately after the pairings for the first day’s sessions were announced at the opening ceremony on the eve of the event, Burns was stomping off in the direction of the Old Course Hotel. Expecting to feature in all four series, the then 25-year-old college golfer at Maryland was less than pleased to find his name omitted from the Wednesday’s Day 1 singles (interestingly, the matches were played on a Wednesday-Thursday that year).

So unhappy was Burns that he announced he was flying home and would not play in the opening foursomes alongside Stadler, a threat Siderowf and Giles heard after hustling down the 18th fairway in pursuit.

“George felt he was the best player on the team,” Giles says. “But Pate was the U.S. Amateur champion and Curtis was NCAA champion. They had earned the right to play all four games. The plan was that everyone would play three times and they would play four. But Burns didn’t like that. Dick and I actually took him behind the hotel for a talk. George was a big strong boy and could have beat the hell out of both of us. But we got him to listen. He eventually came around.”

Not completely though. As Stadler tells it, Burns was still in a foul mood the following morning.

“Our tee time was 10 a.m.,” says the future Masters champion. “I was hitting balls around 9:40 and no one had seen George. So Bill Campbell and I got a cart over to the Old Course Hotel. We pounded on George’s door and it finally opened. We had about 12 minutes until we had to tee off. But George said he wasn’t going to play. He was so pissed at being left off the previous morning.

“I told him to get his butt out of bed, into the cart and we were going to play. Still he wouldn’t come. ‘Bulls— you’re not coming,” I said. ‘We’re going. Let’s go. I can’t do this by myself.’ After a bit more grumbling, I got him out of the room and into the cart. He didn’t hit any balls before we played, only a couple of putts. And we won 5 and 4. We obnoxiously destroyed them.”

Today, Burns acknowledges he didn’t make things easy for the American team, maturity having had its time-honored effect on perspective. Still, he actually might have had a right to be shocked at being omitted. A little more than a month earlier, Burns finished low amateur in the Masters and the previous year he played a prominent role in the four-man U.S. side’s victory at the World Amateur Team Championship. Later in 1975, he would lead the qualifying for the Open Championship at Carnoustie, finish T-10 there and win twice on the European Tour. Then, at year’s end, he finished second at the PGA Tour Q School (which Pate won, with Koch T-3). Clearly, he was a player.

“I have to apologize for my conduct back then,” he says. “I made a big mistake there. But if my not playing one series had been discussed previously, that would not have been my reaction. It was never discussed, though, and I was taken by surprise. But I overreacted. As my dad would say, ‘I spoke before I thought.’ Giles, Siderowf and my dad tried to talk some sense into me. I just didn’t think it through, which I’m very sorry for.”

Still, amidst the bad feeling there was, too, an amusing aspect to this sudden rift in the American ranks.

“Stadler’s reaction made everyone laugh,” Giles says. “He was George’s foursomes partner. So when George said he wasn’t going to play, Craig told everyone he would take the opponents on by himself. We let that go for about 10 minutes before we told him it was alternate shot. It never dawned on him.”

Burns wasn’t the only member of the U.S. squad creating mild controversy. Pate, a renowned chatter-box not slow to, in the British vernacular, “toot his own horn,” was causing some embarrassment with his non-stop banter.

“Pate was a bit mouthy in the lunch room,” recalls a teammate who prefers to remain nameless. “Some of the language wasn’t exactly what you would want to hear in public. We called Campbell ‘the saint.’ And eventually he had had enough of Jerry, who never shut up. He was making comments to the waitresses and things like that. So Campbell took Jerry outside into the hallway and gave him a lecture. It was like a father-son meeting. Jerry was told to moderate his language and a whole host of other things too. We all thought that was very funny.”

Still, it should be noted that Pate’s high opinion of his own worth was shared by others in his team. Giles, for one, was a fan.

“I thought Pate was the best of them,” says the two-time U.S. Amateur champion. “Had he not been hurt later, he would have been in the Hall of Fame. Curtis was comparable. His record speaks to that and he proved to be the best. But Pate was every bit as good. He was cocky as hell and had that ‘it’ factor. He wasn’t scared of anything. But he was a heavy load at St. Andrews.”

Pate’s play didn’t necessarily live up to his own hype, losing all four of his matches. One week later Pate would lose in the first round of the Amateur Championship, thereby completing a miserable trip across the Atlantic. “Pate was a great ball-striker, but I’m not sure links golf suited him,” says GB&I’s Ian Hutcheon, who defeated him in singles, 3 and 2. “He hit the ball high and didn’t get the ball on the ground quick enough.”

Which is not to say Pate was down for long, although his play did maintain a level of inconsistency unusual in such a fine player. One month after the Walker Cup, the Georgian was low amateur in the U.S. Open, which he evetually won in 1976 en route to being the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year.

While the visitors were weathering their various self-induced storms, the home team was readying itself like, well, amateurs. In slight mitigation, however, luck was not on their side. Originally selected to play on Day 1, Englishman Peter Hedges was hit by a revolving door at the team hotel, needed stitches in a head wound and ended up being withdrawn from the first two series. And the May 28-29 date meant the emerging talent that was then 17-year-old Nick Faldo would miss out. The future six-time major champion won a number of events that summer, including the English Amateur championship, but his run of form came too late for the Walker Cup.

“I don’t think we were nearly well enough prepared,” concludes Hutcheon, who would go on to win the individual title at the 1976 World Amateur. “Certainly not when you compare it to today. There wasn’t much thought put into the partnerships or order in which we were sent out. There was no sitting down for a team talk, no discussion about what ball we should use. And there was no sign of any psychologists. I don’t recall any expectation other than that we thought we might just win. But that was normal. Back then it was always a daunting task to face the Americans. We were a lot less familiar with them.”

Stuart, too, was struggling. The then-31-year-old arrived in St. Andrews with his game a mess. Just three months before on the advice of swing coach John Jacobs he had made drastic changes to his address position.

“I couldn’t hit the bloody ball,” says Stuart who, like his fellow Scots, would emerge pointless from the two-day contest. “We had a weekend get together at St. Andrews in April. The press were all there. I was hitting one shot 50 yards left, the next one 50 yards right. They thought I was mucking about. But I wasn’t. I cried in the car going home that night. But I went to the Walker Cup still persevering with that new address.”

For all his struggles, Stuart did at least influence the destination of one point. Playing with Green against Burns and Stadler, the Scots noticed that, on every green, the Americans would ask to change their ball, claiming it was “damaged.”

“We didn’t realize exactly what they were doing until we talked at lunch,” Stuart says. “They were changing from the wee ball to the big ball to putt, which was legal at that time. But we raised the issue. John Davies was playing Burns in the afternoon. On the first hole, Burns found the green with his approach. When he marked he shouted over that he was taking the ball out of play. Davies went over and told him it wasn’t damaged. So Burns had to putt with a small ball. And Davies beat him. The captain of the R&A referred to what they were doing at dinner that night. It caused a wee bit of a ripple.”

Amidst all of these on- and off-course shenanigans, it was clear that the visiting side was, with something to spare, the superior team. The final score of 15½-8½ is a pretty fair reflection of the strengths on both sides, but it could have been worse for the home players. The Americans strode to convincing victory while “carrying” Pate, much to the amusement of his teammates. Even now, they never fail to remind him of his lack of success. And one shot in particular—the opening blow on the opening hole on the opening day—stands out.

“I had played the Old Course in all kinds of wind,” Pate says. “So I should have known better. Siderowf was telling me not to hit driver off the first tee in the first match. He knew it was too much club. But I went ahead and did it anyway. Sure enough, the ball finished in the burn near the Swilcan Bridge. So Dick’s first shot was taking a drop. My dad was there shaking his head. Needless to say, we lost that hole.”

It was, however, a false dawn for the home team. By the end of the next day, the U.S. side had won three of the four series of matches and halved the other. It was a dominant performance by a stellar team packed with past, present and future stars, one “better than most” as Koch might say.

But the final word must go to Giles.

“You can look at more modern teams, but I still think the 1975 side has to be at least one of the strongest we’ve ever had,” says the now-80-year-old. “Today, if you were putting together that team, Campbell probably wouldn’t make it. He was still a heck of a player, but he was as much a leader as a player. So some hot-shot college player would get his spot now. But if someone was to say that side is still the strongest ever, I would not disagree.”

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

A 3-foot, 11-inch putt and the slim margins that defined Bryson DeChambeau’s second U.S. Open win