Two years after nerve-racking defeat, U.S. Walker Cup team seeks redemption

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Two years after nerve-racking defeat, U.S. Walker Cup team seeks redemption

Amateur

Two years after nerve-racking defeat, U.S. Walker Cup team seeks redemption

The day before the 2015 Walker Cup, U.S. captain Spider Miller pulled out some baby wipes and handed them to his players.

“He was like, ‘You might need these on 18 if it comes down to your match,’” said Bryson DeChambeau, a member of that team.

It was an attempt to lighten the mood in an otherwise tense situation. That American squad was loaded – DeChambeau was coming off wins at the NCAA Championship and U.S. Amateur; Maverick McNealy was still carrying momentum from a five-win sophomore season at Stanford; Beau Hossler and Hunter Stewart notched top-10s and helped their teams to match play at NCAAs. But they were about to experience pressure unlike anything they had ever felt, playing a Walker Cup on foreign soil.

“You really just can’t replicate that feeling,” Stewart said. “It’s a big deal when Peter Dawson (the former R&A chief executive) calls your name … that’s a big moment. It was kind of chilling, almost; you get goosebumps just standing there. It’s something that you really can’t prepare for, because you don’t really know how you’re going to feel.”

The U.S. team arrived at Royal Lytham that week with both confidence and nerves. At the start, the latter took over, and soon after the team’s lack of familiarity with links golf and some untimely poor form belabored that confidence.

The GB&I team seized the opportunity, winning 16½ to 9½, the biggest defeat of a U.S. team since the event began in 1922.

“We were a stacked team that should’ve won, and usually when you go into it thinking that you’re going to win it’s just a terrible way to look at it,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got to look at it unbiasedly and say, ‘I’ve got to take care of what I can do and get the job done.’ ”

This time around, Miller is determined to finish the deal. This will be his second – and final – stint as U.S. captain, and he knows the importance of winning a home Walker Cup.

The Americans, who lead the all-time series 35-9-1, have lost just one Walker Cup in the U.S. since 1993 and are looking for a fourth straight triumph on home soil when they arrive at Los Angeles Country Club for the Sept. 9-10 matches.

“Home course, home crowd, and we’ll have a number of players from the West Coast who have had the opportunity to play LACC,” Miller said. “Two years ago the GB&I guys had all played the Lytham Trophy. … They won’t have that advantage this year.”

And what an advantage it is, and not just because the style of golf will favor the American squad. Stewart remembers the crowds two years ago and hopes this year’s U.S. team experiences similar support in Los Angeles.

“When they made putts, you heard about it,” Stewart said. “That first putt they made on No. 1 to win the hole, I mean I’ll never forget that sound. It was kind of like a bunch of guys who already had beers and it was like 8 o’clock in the morning, and they were already hearty and ready to go.”

Spider Miller is comforted by Bryson DeChambeau after the Americans’ 2015 Walker Cup defeat at Royal Lytham. (Getty Images)

With the comfort of playing at home in his team’s back pockets, Miller doesn’t expect to change much of how he captains this year’s team, which features several of the best amateurs in the world, including McNealy, Stewart Hagestad, Collin Morikawa and Cameron Champ, all players with strong West Coast ties. He will use similar metrics in how he determines pairings while also taking input from players. And he’ll keep his practice rounds competitive, with players competing against each other for rewards.

“I’m just hoping we putt better,” Miller said.

It’s Miller’s sense of humor that players love. It’s a different type of coaching, sure, but Miller is an ultra-competitor without the over-the-top flair and energy.

“He motivates you in a unique way,” Stewart said. “… He’s relaxed and funny; he makes snarky comments. It’s a very American-themed message and I very much enjoyed that, and I loved playing for him. … I think he has a really competitive spirit and that kind of rubbed off on us.”

Said McNealy: “He’s one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet. He caters to the players, for a good part allowed us to pick our partners and who we wanted to play with. Didn’t force anything on us. He’s also a great spokesperson for our team and understands what the Walker Cup is all about.”

Said DeChambeau: “I think there’s no better man for the job.”

The lasting image from the 2015 Walker Cup was DeChambeau sitting next to Miller at the closing ceremonies. Miller had tears in his eyes, elbows on his knees and his head hung, while DeChambeau had his right arm around his captain in an attempt to console him.

Miller would love for tears of joy this time around.

“This is the last hoorah for me,” Miller said. “And as a team, this team will either be known as the 2017 Walker Cup team or the 2017 winning Walker Cup team. It’s up to them.”

Just don’t expect the Americans to need baby wipes again.

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