The 40th Walker Cup Matches are destined to go down in amateur golf annals as one of the most enthralling spectacles in the modern era. How unfortunate that this epic battle at Chicago Golf Club was overshadowed by the PGA Championship, running concurrently at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey.
As compelling as Phil Mickelson’s victory might have been, it paled in excitement and appeal compared to the Walker Cup – especially on Sunday. It’s hard to imagine better shotmaking under duress than the Great Britain & Ireland team pulled off down the stretch. The sheer joy and genuine excitement displayed by the American team when it clinched the Cup sent a chill down even the most jaded spine.
Chicago Golf Club is a classic venue, untainted for the Walker Cup by the kind of steroids applied to Baltusrol for the PGA. Even deprived of firmness, the course held up nicely against amateur golf’s young guns. False fronts, subtle dips and well-placed bunkers can be great equalizers, especially in match play.
Spectators could walk alongside players between shots, getting close enough to share their ecstasy and suffer their pain as the matches ebbed and flowed. No surly caddies here, nor the phalanx of officials, scorers, security guards, photographers, television workers and reporters who clog the fairways at PGA Tour events.
Daily admission was $35; juniors got in free. A souvenir T-shirt could be purchased for $18. Burgers and soda for the family didn’t break the bank.
The galleries were surprisingly large – 5,000 on Saturday and probably more than 6,000 on Sunday. This on a weekend when leisuretime options included a Cubs-Cardinals series at Wrigley Field, the Arlington Million horse race, or simply staying home to watch television as Tiger & Friends slugged it out at Baltusrol.
Most in attendance were familiar with match play. Those who weren’t soon learned about the vagaries of team competition, how quickly a seemingly insurmountable lead can dissolve. Sunday spectators who were astute enough to understand the implications, and nimble enough to stake out prime viewing spots, were treated to an unforgettable series of comebacks by the GB&I team – three consecutive birdies to halve or win matches at the 18th – that left the outcome hanging in balance until the final pairing.
All of which begs the question of why, when it became aware of the conflict with the PGA, the U.S. Golf Association didn’t change the date of the Walker Cup in an effort to attract more attention.
The answer can be found on golf’s cluttered calendar. Weekends in July and early August would have conflicted with other USGA championships. The Aug. 20-21 weekend would have left players with no time to decompress before beginning medal play at the U.S. Amateur in Philadelphia on the 22nd. The week after the U.S. Amateur might have made more sense, although college players likely would have faced conflicts with the beginning of the school year.
So the Walker Cup couldn’t budge. Which made little difference to those who really care. They wouldn’t have missed the show under any circumstances.