Spring training came early for potential members of the U.S. Walker Cup team, who gathered last week for a three-day practice session at Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa, Fla.
The sixteen players were divided into two teams – the Red and Blue – to compete in singles and foursomes matches. The session also was used to teach players about the Walker Cup’s history and motivate players for this year’s matches.
Here are some highlights:
• Scramble: Late one afternoon, the 16 players, captain Jim Holtgrieve and team manager Robbie Zalzneck split into two nine-man teams for a scramble competition. “I hit a few shots, let them laugh at the old captain, and had some fun with it,” said Holtgrieve, the ’81 Mid-Am champion.
Add in caddies, and there were 36 people in each fairway. The scramble lasted three holes, until darkness put a halt to the game.
NCAA champion Scott Langley, who attended the practice session, said the scramble was one of the week’s highlights. “That was the most fun I’ve had on a course in a while,” Langley said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. Doing things like that together can start to form a team, and a team mindset.
“The Walker Cup is such a team event, I think it’s important to build relationships with your teammates as early as possible.”
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• President 41: To illustrate the Walker Cup’s importance, Holtgrieve had President George H.W. Bush (whose grandfather is the competition’s namesake) address the team in a video.
“He re-emphasized … playing for your country and staying amateur and having an opportunity to play for the Walker Cup,” Holtgrieve said. “It was perfect.”
During a Walker Cup year, there are always questions about which players will turn pro before the competition. In 2009, Billy Horschel, Kyle Stanley and Jamie Lovemark were among those who turned pro before the event (not that they were missed, as the U.S. won, 16.5-9.5). Holtgrieve is confident that the players who attended last week’s session will remain amateur until September.
“When we invited these 16 candidates to come down, we talked to them about turning pro,” Holtgrieve said. “ I just don’t think any one of these guys is going to turn pro before the announcement is made.”
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• Sneak peek: When the U.S. team arrives in Scotland, it won’t be seeing Royal Aberdeen for the first time. Holtgrieve went on a reconnaissance mission to the Walker Cup site last July, taking detailed notes of each hole. He showed potential team members a slideshow of the course last week.
Holtgrieve is compiling a book that’ll contain photos and yardages of each hole, and will give each team member a copy before departing for Scotland.
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• Sept. 11, 2011: This year’s Walker Cup ends on Sept. 11, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies. Holtgrieve talked with Zalzneck last week about ways to recognize the anniversary.
“My intention is that we will do something,” Holtgrieve said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, I don’t what the R&A is going to allow. If I have my way, absolutely, we’ll do it, whether we do it during the course of play, whether we do it during the closing ceremony. There will be a remembrance.”
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• A new candidate: I found out this week that there’s another player to add to the list of Walker Cup contenders: Bank Vongvanij, the No. 2 player in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Vongvanij is of Thai descent and lived in Thailand before attending IMG’s academy in Bradenton, Fla., but was born in Hawaii and is a U.S. citizen.
While the Walker Cup practice session was going on in Tampa, the New Year’s Invitational was being held nearby at St. Petersburg Country Club. Vongvanij finished runner-up in that event. He recently won the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, one of the college season’s top events.