U.S. flips switch late to take commanding Walker Cup lead

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U.S. flips switch late to take commanding Walker Cup lead

Amateur

U.S. flips switch late to take commanding Walker Cup lead

LOS ANGELES – At one point Saturday afternoon at Los Angeles Country Club, it looked as if Great Britain and Ireland were going to silence the SoCal crowd and grab a surprising advantage at the halfway point of the 46th Walker Cup.

Heavy underdogs entering the week, the visiting squad was leading five of the eight matches deep into the first singles session. The hosts, which had halved the opening foursomes session 2-2, were on their heels. The switch that veteran team member Maverick McNealy said he and his teammates needed to flip on Saturday? More than half the American players were still struggling to find it as the sun started to set on a chamber-of-commerce-type day in L.A.

But then the lights turned on. The red-white-and-blue rally started. The switch, and three matches, flipped. And Team USA will enter Sunday’s final day with an 8-4 lead as it attempts to recapture the Cup.

“I saw a lot of spirit, I saw a lot of tough guys, I saw guys that reached down and pulled something out,” U.S. captain Spider Miller said, “and they flipped their matches and I’m so proud of them, I can tell you that, each and every one of them.”

Two years ago, the U.S. arguably had two of its 10 players show up with their A-games at Royal Lytham: Beau Hossler and Bryson DeChambeau. After the first day in 2015, the Americans trailed 7-5, and ended up losing 16.5-9.5.

This time around, Miller has more players earning points for the U.S. – six already to be exact. And get this: in the Americans’ last two Walker Cup wins, in 2009 and ’13, they were leading 8-4 after the first day each time.

Norman Xiong and Collin Morikawa went out in the morning and turned in the biggest 18-hole rout in Walker Cup history, an 8-and-7 drubbing of Alfie Plant and Harry Ellis, who were thought to be one of GB&I’s most formidable foursomes duo. Then in the afternoon, Morikawa beat Paul McBride, 3 and 2, and Xiong rallied from 3 down through six holes to beat Connor Syme, 2 and 1.

McNealy and Doug Ghim didn’t quite dominate like Xiong and Morikawa in foursomes, but they still closed out their match on the 14th hole. Then in singles, Ghim never trailed in a 2-and-1 victory over David Boote while McNealy rallied to beat Scott Gregory, arguably GB&I’s best player in the morning session, 3 and 1.

McNealy, who earned just a half-point two years ago at Royal Lytham, now has two points to his credit so far this week. The second one was especially hard-earned. Two down with 11 holes to play, McNealy clawed back to all square going into the 78-yard par-3 15th. He then drained an 18-footer for birdie from the fringe to win the hole, and never looked back.

“On 10 I was walking up the fairway and I just felt exhausted,” McNealy said. “It’s been a long, long week and really long day of trying golf, but actually I watched ‘Miracle’ last week, and I’m a hockey player and this is third-period hockey, so you got to kind of grind it out, you got to tough it out and dig deep, and that’s exactly what I did.

“This is big for me. I really, really wanted to play well this week, for my teammates, for my country, for Captain Miller.”

Braden Thornberry, this year’s NCAA individual champion, sat out the foursomes session, but returned with a fire in singles against Ellis. He won the first hole and led for much of the front nine. At the par-3 ninth, he holed a par putt from the fairway cut to halve the hole. And after getting 2 down with five to play, he battled back, sealing a 2-up win by sticking a 6-iron to a foot from 200 yards.

“I caught up with him and he was 2 down, and he told me he was going to win, and he did,” Miller said. “And that’s the kind of player he is. … He has a gentle nature, but he’s a competitor.”

Will Zalatoris was defeated in foursomes playing alongside U.S. Amateur champ Doc Redman. But Zalatoris, who missed making the Walker Cup team two years ago after an emergency appendectomy in May affected his summer play, didn’t hang his head. He also didn’t get down after a 2-up advantage over Matthew Jordan through two holes of singles turned into a 1-down deficit after 12 holes.

The Wake Forest player retook the lead with par at the par-5 14th, kept it with an extremely difficult up-and-down at the par-3 15th, and then went dormie by winning the par-4 16th. A conceded par at the final hole earned Zalatoris his first career Walker Cup point.

“Will’s a tough guy. He’s a fighter. He never gives up,” Miller said. “And he proved it today. He’s my man.”

Said Zalatoris: “Just getting a full point. This is the stuff that tomorrow is going to matter.”

Every point counts, indeed. And the U.S. are now just five-and-a-half points away from Walker Cup glory at Los Angeles Country Club.

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