At 2:46 p.m., Brian Harman finished off Great Britain & Ireland’s Rhys Davies, 6 and 5, to secure the U.S. team’s first point Aug. 14 in the final singles session at the 40th Walker Cup.
Two hours and 17 minutes later, Jeff Overton, survived a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire thriller and scored a 1-up victory over Nigel Edwards – a victory that brought the Walker Cup back to American soil for the first time since 1997.
Overton’s triumph capped a wild afternoon at Chicago Golf Club that finally ended with a 121⁄2-111⁄2 U.S. victory over Great Britain & Ireland, that had won the last three Walker Cups and four of the last five.
“I’m just so proud of these guys,” said American captain Bob Lewis, who also captained the U.S. team which lost by a point two years ago at Ganton Golf Club in England. “They did what they had to do. This (Walker Cup) is really special golf. That’s all you can say.”
Garth McGimpsey, the GB&I captain the past two Walker Cups, had mixed emotions.
“I’m disappointed, obviously, and I’m proud at the same time, if that’s possible,” McGimpsey said. “These guys gave everything they possibly could. It was very similar to Ganton so I guess the books are balanced between myself and Bob, one tight match each.”
Excruciatingly tight it was – from start to finish, even though the U.S. never trailed on the points table at any time during the two-day competition.
The Americans grabbed a 21⁄2-11⁄2 lead after the opening day’s foursomes – their first lead at that point since they last won in 1997. Lewis has always preached the importance of earning even a half-point in any given match. He said none was more important this time than the halved first match Harman and Anthony Kim earned after battling back from a 3-down deficit after 10 holes against Welsh countrymen Edwards and Davies.
A 4-4 split of the afternoon singles matches left the U.S. with a 61⁄2-51⁄2 edge after Day 1. The scenario was familiar. The U.S. led after Day 1 in the past three Walker Cups only to have GB&I charge to victory each time, dominating Day 2 singles to the tune of 19-5 during that span. After each side won two foursome matches Sunday morning to keep the U.S. in front 81⁄2-71⁄2, the stage was set for one of the most exciting finishes in Walker Cup history.
The U.S. needed four points in eight matches to get the Cup back; GB&I needed 41⁄2 to insure a tie and retain possession of the Cup for another two years.
By the time the first group was through the 13th hole, GB&I was up in five matches and down in three.
When the 18-year-old Harman, the youngest U.S. Walker Cup player ever, handily defeated Davies, a first-team All-American as a sophomore at East Tennessee State last season, it gave the U.S. a two-point cushion.
The lead was cut to one when England’s Gary Wolstenholme, a five-time GB&I player and a member of four winning teams, held on for a 1-up victory over Kim, who had been unbeaten in his first three matches and had fought back from a 4-down deficit after 11 holes.
GB&I evened the match at 91⁄2 when Matthew Richardson of England closed out John Holmes, 5 and 4. Of the five matches still in progress, the U.S. was up in three with the remaining two all square.
The 18th hole then became a hub of activity, excitement and some remarkable shots by GB&I that had Lewis and American fans in near shock, prompting fears of a repeat of what happened at Ganton two years prior, when the GB&I team made several crucial putts to win holes and rally to victory.
The closing frenzy started with the match between Michael Putnam and 16-year-old Englishman Oliver Fisher, the youngest player ever to compete in a Walker Cup. Putnam was 1 up coming into 18 and appeared in great position to secure another U.S. point as he faced an 18-foot chip shot from just off the front fringe and Fisher was lining up a 20-foot birdie putt.
Fisher – who a day earlier birdied four of the last five holes to beat Putnam, 2 up – drained his birdie putt, and when Putnam was unable to hole his chip the match was halved and the score remained tied at 10.
Next down No. 18 with a 1-up lead was Matt Every against Robert Dinwiddie of England. Every’s approach shot went left into the rough about 25 feet from the hole; Dinwiddie’s came up short in the fringe about 18 feet away. Every’s chip shot hit the pin and spun about 3 feet past the hole. Dinwiddie chipped in for birdie to save another half-point for GB&I.
Five minutes later, Lee Williams – the only player on the U.S. side with previous Walker Cup experience – closed out Gary Lockerbie of England, 4 and 3, to give the U.S. an 111⁄2-101⁄2 edge.
The lead lasted 13 minutes. Back at the 18th hole, Kyle Reifers and Scotland’s Lloyd Saltman, the low amateur at this year’s British Open, were all square. But Saltman ran home a 20-foot birdie putt and Reifers just missed an 18-foot attempt.
“When we lost (at Ganton) it hurt, it really did,” said Lewis. “I just didn’t think there could be a match of that caliber. When I watched what was going on when we were coming in, and every time I walked up to the 18th hole, they would hole a 20-footer or chip a ball in, it got to be crazy.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ ”
Saltman’s victory left the outcome down to the last match on the course, pitting the bucket-hatted Overton, who was clinging to a 1-up lead, against Edwards, a two-time Walker Cup competitor.
Edwards put his approach 25 feet above the hole. Overton landed his 18 feet right of the pin.
Standing next to Overton in the fairway and after seeing what had happened on the final hole in the three previous matches, Every said, “If he (Edwards) makes that putt I’m quitting golf, and you can quote me on that. If he makes that after what has happened so far, I’m giving up the game.”
Every almost had to give up the sport. For the longest time, the Welshman’s putt looked like it had a chance to go in. About a foot from the hole, it slipped an inch to the left and slid 3 feet past.
“That putt on the last for Nigel, a half-inch, that’s what determined which way the Walker Cup goes,” said Wolstenholme.
After Edwards missed his putt, Lewis walked over to Overton to deliver some words of advice.
“I know how these young guys are, they’re so aggressive it will sometimes drive you nuts,” Lewis said. “I mean it’s the Walker Cup, match play. So once Nigel missed that putt, I walk over to Jeff and say, ‘I want you to hit the greatest lag putt of your life.’ ”
To which Overton jokingly responded, “I wanted to make it, to hear the roar of the crowd.”
But Overton took his captain’s advice, lagged his putt to within a foot and the U.S. had finally regained the Cup.
“He wanted to hear the roar, and I wanted (the putt) to be like that,” said Lewis, holding his hands about 6 inches apart. “He did exactly what he had to do. They had to concede it. When you see the hat come off from your opponent (to indicate the end of the match), that’s one of the great moments in the Walker Cup.”
It set off a huge celebration among Lewis, the 10-man American team and the many U.S. faithful in the gallery.
“I’ve waited two years for this,” said Williams, who along with Putnam, Overton, Holmes and Nicholas Thompson, delayed his pro career to have a chance to compete in Chicago. “This is just an unbelievable way to go out (of amateur golf). This makes up for what happened two years ago, big time.”
Added Putnam: “I never thought it would feel like this. It’s awesome. It was as exciting as it could get and we squeaked it out, but that’s all that counts.”
Thompson called the experience the highlight of his amateur career.
“And I guarantee you it’s the same for everyone else on the team,” he said. “We will all remember this – and each other – for the rest of our lives.”