Juno Beach, Fla.
The 39th Walker Cup Match is 16 months away, and already the U.S. team is behind the eightball.
The United States leads the biennial series with Great Britain and Ireland 31-6-1, but has lost three of the last four Walker Cup Matches. Team captain Bob Lewis Jr., who posted a 10-4 record as a player in four Walker Cups in the 1980s, is determined to stop the bleeding.
Thus he was an attentive listener April 26 after the second round of the George Coleman Invitational, when he joined me and three past captains – Danny Yates, Downing Gray and Vinny Giles – in the locker room at Seminole Golf Club to discuss the state of the Walker Cup.
The 45-minute roundtable produced two key conclusions:
• The U.S. Golf Association must become more involved in preparing the U.S. team for competition.
• The younger players who typically make the team – college hotshots who turn professional shortly after the Matches – are sorely in need of an attitude adjustment.
“You look at the pool of talent that they (GB&I) have and the pool of talent that we have, it’s like taking a college team against a professional team,” said Gray, a two-time captain and three-time contestant. “But it isn’t. And part of that is attitude on the part of the younger guys, and part of it is what we’ve all said: You need some cohesiveness in advance. No team in other sports just all of a sudden gets together 10 days ahead of time and plays for the championship. It just doesn’t happen.”
In recent years, the U.S. team selection process has been little more than an afterthought. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews leaves no stone unturned in its development of a highly motivated, cohesive GB&I team.
“There’s got to be some dedication from the USGA to change how they’ve historically promoted the Walker Cup,” said Gray, whose team lost to GB&I 14-10 in 1995 at Royal Porthcawl, Wales, and rebounded with an 18-6 victory two years later at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in New York.
What’s missing on the U.S. squad is team chemistry, which the captains believe can’t be achieved without naming a select team as GB&I does, and getting that team together several times before picking the final 10 players.
Gray attributes his team’s success in 1997 to a practice session it had at Deepdale Country Club on Long Island, a couple of weeks before the Walker Cup Match in neighboring Westchester County. After the debacle in Wales, where GB&I’s first team culled from its select-team system beat a U.S. team led by Tiger Woods, Gray insisted that his players become more familiar with each other before the competition.
“Those 48 or 54 hours we spent together, that made the deal,” Gray said. “When we showed up at Quaker Ridge, we were locked and loaded and ready to go. We had teams set; we were a unit. It was snap, snap, snap. It was over before we ever played the first match. It was a joined-at-the-hip situation.”
Much to his regret, Yates wasn’t able to organize a similar get-together before either of the Matches he captained.
“It’s hard to get chemistry with a week’s notice,” said Yates, whose teams lost by 15-9 scores last year at Ocean Forest in Sea Island, Ga., and in 1999 at Nairn, Scotland. “You might get lucky. We had very good chemistry at Interlachen, but that was very unusual.”
Giles captained the 1993 team that won 19-5 at Interlachen Country Club in Minnesota. Ironically, that rout fed a long-standing USGA superiority complex that left it asleep at the switch as GB&I refined its selection process and training methods.
Lewis said “there’s a lot of discussion going on right now about trying to do some things to make our players a little better prepared. We need to give ourselves the best chance we can to win.
“They (GB&I) already named a 20-man team a month ago. They’re going to play together for a year and a half,” Lewis said. “OK, do you want to compete against that or not? That’s the bottom line.”
Giles believes embarrassment will prompt the USGA into action.
“I think the USGA finally has said, ‘Wait a minute. Even we don’t like losing these matches, and we’re going to try to do something about it,” Giles said. “And get away from the (emphasis on) statesmanship and goodwill and try to field the best possible team as we can.
“In talking to (USGA executive director) David Fay recently, for the first time I got a very clear message that we are sick of getting our ass kicked. And we want to do something about it. Now, having stated the obvious, what’s the solution? How do you get everyone (on the USGA Executive Committee) on the same page?”
Creating a shared team vision will be an equally daunting task.
“We’ve got to get commitment from our players,” Giles said. “It’s not the mid-amateur players, the guys who are 25 and up, who aren’t committed. It’s the biggest honor in the world for them. We’ve got to get the young players to understand how important the Walker Cup is.
“A lot of these young players now, all they’re thinking about is, ‘Am I going to play Titleist or Mizuno or Maxfli or whatever. What clothes am I going to wear? What management group is going to give me the biggest guarantee?’ ”
As founder of Pros Inc., a player management company, Giles knows the landscape well. “These kids are spoiled today,” he said. “I can tell you from our business perspective, man, they are spoiled.”
Lewis said he won’t tolerate prima donnas on the squad he’ll take to Ganton Golf Club in England.
“We’ve somehow got to get the motivation back about playing for your country,” he said. “The thing you’ve got to get across in the Walker Cup is that individual records don’t mean anything. If you get a half point and that wins the Walker Cup, that’s the most important half point you’re ever going to get in your entire damn life.”
Each former captain was asked to offer Lewis one piece of advice for ’03:
• Giles: “Chemistry. Find a good, solid group that wants to pull on the same oar.”
• Gray: “Take control early. You’re the captain, you ought to run the railroad. You need to be in charge, and nobody needs to question your judgment.”
• Yates: “You’ve got to identify the leaders on the team. You can’t be everywhere at once, so you’ve got to have some leaders you can rely on.”
Lewis clearly is a take-charge kind of guy. He would like the USGA’s cooperation in notifying players early this summer that they are candidates for a select squad to be named this fall. Those who accept spots on the select squad would be required to participate in certain tournaments and gather two or three times to experiment with pairings and develop camaraderie. Eight players would be named to the Walker Cup team in early August 2003, with the final two spots announced Aug. 25, after the U.S. Amateur.
“In fairness to the players and everybody else, we at least need to be on the same footing (in terms of team selection process compared to GB&I),” Lewis said. “If everybody was doing the same thing and they beat us, that’s one thing. But that’s not the way it’s working right now.