Jason Gore played dumb when approached by the first President Bush.
The previous night, Gore learned he’d been selected to represent the United States in the 1997 Walker Cup, a competition named for George Herbert Walker Bush’s grandfather.
But Gore had to keep quiet as he stood on the 15th tee at Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake, Calif., because the team roster wasn’t to be announced for a couple of days. So, when the former president – one of the few who knew the team’s members – offered congratulations, Gore feigned nonchalance as best he could.
“For what?” he asked.
No information in amateur golf is more closely guarded than the Walker Cup roster.
Every other summer, the U.S. Golf Association selects the 10 men who will compete against Great Britain & Ireland. The subjective process, combined with a lack of transparency, makes the Walker Cup selections among the few sources of debate in the gentlemanly amateur game.
“No one really knows (how the team is selected), to be honest with you,” said ’07 team member Kyle Stanley, who turned pro earlier this year. “It’s just a matter of a bunch of people getting in a board room and figuring out who they want on the team.”
Unlike the Ryder Cup, there’s no points list for players and the public to follow. The USGA won’t even disclose the names of the four members of the International Team Selection Committee, except for chairman Steve Smyers (the entire USGA Executive Committee has a say in the selections, Smyers said). He insists the committee does its work with diligence and integrity, considering the impact that selection can have on a player’s future.
“We’re very aware that (the Walker Cup) has a dramatic effect on their life and their career, so we take it very seriously,” he said. “The process is not easy. You think you just pick 10 guys, but there’s 30 guys that could fill those 10 slots.
“It’s going to come down to a fine line at the end of the day.”
Added U.S. captain George “Buddy” Marucci Jr.: “It isn’t the intent to be mysterious about it. The whole thing is to just be as fair as possible. “Out of respect for everybody else, no one can say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ until the selections are made.”
Results from the top amateur events – the USGA championships, Western Amateur, Northeast Amateur, Porter Cup and about a dozen more – will be the most important factor. But the committee also takes into account a player’s demeanor and etiquette, the suitability of his game (for foursomes and four-balls) and camaraderie, Smyers said.
“We look at everything,” he said. “If you’re looking for a formula, we don’t have that. It’s just like hitting a golf shot. You have to have some feel for it.”
But that’s where part of the confusion lies. Is a victory at the Azalea Invitational worth more than a win at the Porter Cup? Is making the semis at the Western Am more valuable than finishing third at the Northeast? How much do the previous year’s results factor?
Even a victory in a USGA championship doesn’t guarantee selection. Since 2000, future PGA Tour winners Chez Reavie and Brandt Snedeker, plus Clay Ogden and Casey Watabu, were left off the Walker Cup team after winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links; Danny Green was the only runner-up to make the team. George Zahringer was the only U.S. Mid-Amateur champion in that time to be selected.
The PGA of America uses PGA Tour events to award points for its Ryder Cup team standings. The USGA, even internally, does not keep a similar-style list, Smyers said. Creating such standings would require the USGA to rank the country’s top amateur events, something it does not want to do, observers say.
Early in ‘08, the USGA identified “twenty-something” candidates for this year’s team, which will be selected in August, Smyers said. Those players were sent a letter from the USGA and asked to fill out a wide-ranging questionnaire, which featured queries such as:
>> What do you feel are the strengths of your golf game? What are the weaknesses?
>> Hobbies and off-course activities?
>> Do you wear glasses or contact lenses? If yes, for what?
Players who did not receive a letter still will be considered for the team, Smyers said. That letter is about the only contact the USGA will initiate with potential Walker Cup picks until the team is selected.
Marucci and Smyers said players can contact them at any time with questions. Marucci will attend approximately 14 events this year, and play in about half of them. He is the ’08 USGA Senior Amateur champion and runner-up to Tiger Woods in the ’95 U.S. Amateur.
Marucci calls himself a “fact finder” for the International Team Selection Committee, and said he’ll speak with the committee weekly this summer.
“They listen to what I have to say, but I don’t get a vote,” Marucci said. “Being separated from the process is better for the team . . . but I’m not totally insulated.”
The International Team Selection Committee is expected to select seven or eight team members after the Western Amateur in early August. The final two or three spots will be filled after the U.S. Amateur. Picking those final spots can get trickier if a longshot American were to win the U.S. Amateur.
The committee, however, doesn’t just evaluate the players with the best recent results. Play from the previous 18 months is considered, Marucci said.
Some may debate whether it is better to select a hot hand instead of someone who racked up victories a year earlier, which made Jonathan Moore’s selection to the ’07 team a controversial one.
As an Oklahoma State freshman, Moore closed the ’06 college season with three consecutive victories, including the NCAA Championship. He added the Players Amateur title later that year and represented the U.S. at the World Amateur Team Championship. He slumped in ’07 but still was one of the first eight players selected to the Walker Cup team. In the competition, Moore clinched the title with a 3-foot eagle putt on the final hole of his singles match with Nigel Edwards.
“Thank God we had him,” Marucci said.
The USGA also has been criticized in the past for favoring the career amateur and players from the eastern half of the country. But only one player older than 25 – Trip Kuehne, in 2007 – has represented the U.S. in the past two Walker Cups as the number of competitive mid-ams has decreased in recent years. There wasn’t one on the ’05 team, a first for the U.S. The New Jersey-based USGA has been accused of harboring an East Coast bias, as well.
Any perceived geographic bias might not be against the players themselves but could arise from the fact that the nation’s best events are mostly held on the East Coast. Jeff Quinney, the 2000 U.S. Amateur champ, was the only West Coast player to represent the U.S. in the ’99 or ’01 Walker Cups.
Both teams lost 15-9, the worst U.S. losses in Walker Cup history. One observer said the ’01 match was a tipping point for the USGA because the loss came on U.S. soil. The U.S. team in 2001 had three mid-amateurs, and Quinney was the only West Coast player.
But the greater Western representation could be a result, too, in a change of top players’ schedules.
O.D. Vincent, former coach at Washington, UCLA and Duke, said West Coast players have made an “increased effort” in recent years to play the top Eastern events.
“Guys in the West, they thought back in the day if you played in just (West Coast events), that it would be fine, and it wasn’t,” Vincent said. “Like in recruiting or sales or anything else, you want to get in front of your customer as much as you can.”
Eight West Coast players have made the past three teams.
Marucci said he has made “every effort” to consider players from around the country; he played the ’07 Pacific Coast Amateur.
The Pacific Coast Am is a testament to the shadow that the Walker Cup casts over amateur golf. The event, which features a team and individual competition, changed its format in ’02, to emphasize the individual portion, a move the USGA told organizers was necessary for its participants to gain more notice. But there are no guarantees when it comes to Walker Cup selection.
“Sometimes mistakes are made,” Marucci said, “but generally speaking, people put in a lot of time and effort to make sure it’s done right.”