The United States is heavily favored at the Walker Cup, and for good reason. The American team features the world’s top-ranked amateur, Patrick Cantlay, and six of the top 10, plus two winners of Nationwide Tour events, Russell Henley and Harris English. The race for the final spots on the 10 man roster was tight because so many Americans were playing well in the weeks leading up to the Walker Cup.
Great Britain & Ireland’s advantage comes in the competition’s site, Royal Aberdeen. Most of the United States’ players are unfamiliar with links golf. The GB&I squad also will have the support of large, partisan galleries. The Walker Cup is a big deal in the British Isles. The home team will have to make the most of those advantages to win this weekend against a U.S. squad listed as a 4-9 favorite by British oddsmakers.
“I think (the U.S.) has to be favorites, given their achievements that they’ve had,” said Great Britain & Ireland’s Jack Senior, a semifinalist at the U.S. Amateur. “But our guys are on form; they’re playing well. Pretty much everyone had a good summer and played well the last few months. Especially with this golf course when it’s probably going to be windy, maybe conditions they’re not used to, there’s no condition we can’t compete, and like I said, they’ll be favorites, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be scared of them.
“My performance in the U.S. Amateur has shown that these guys can be beat.”
The United States is 1-3 in the past four “road” Walker Cups. The Americans’ one-point victory at Royal County Down in 2007 ended a three-Cup losing streak in Great Britain & Ireland. The ’07 U.S. team featured eight current PGA Tour players, including Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler and Chris Kirk. That team won, 12 ½-11 ½, only after Jonathan Moore holed a 4-foot eagle putt on the final hole.
Yes, that Great Britain & Ireland team featured Rory McIlroy, but the narrow margin is testament to the difficulty of playing overseas in the Walker Cup.
To help his team prepare for unfamiliar conditions, U.S. captain Jim 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 during a Walker Cup practice session in January.
Holtgrieve also compiled a book of photos and yardages for each of Royal Aberdeen’s 18 holes and gave each member of the U.S. team a copy before they departed for Scotland.
Holtgrieve’s top two players, Cantlay and Peter Uihlein, have some links experience.
Uihlein visited Royal Aberdeen as part of a golf trip with his father, Wally, before the Open Championship. He also played Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St. Andrews’ Old Course. The Open Championship, where he finished 48th, gave Uihlein the opportunity to experience the worst of British weather.
“I remember going through five towels, changing grips, my golf bag ruined,” Uihlein said. “That was the hardest I’ve ever seen conditions. It was unbelievable. I remember at No. 17 hitting driver, hybrid, and the hole was 430 yards. And then at No. 11, a par 3 which was like 240, I think I hit an 8-iron. But you know, it’s fun.”
At age 12, Cantlay also took a trip to the Home of Golf, playing St. Andrews Old, St. Andrews New, Kingsbarns, Royal County Down and Lahinch. That’s a good first exposure to links golf.
He still remembers his score at the Old Course. “45 on the front, 38 coming back, and I was really pumped,” Cantlay said. “I was happy to shoot my 83.”
He obviously wouldn’t be happy with such a score today, but any experience on links should come in handy this weekend.