2005: Walker Cup - A half-inch might turn the tide

Wheaton, Ill.

If the United States ever resumes winning Ryder Cup Matches with any consistency, Americans can thank Nigel Edwards.

Had Edwards aimed his birdie attempt a half-inch more to the right, had he made the putt and won a precious half-point for Great Britain & Ireland in the final match of the 40th Walker Cup, a generation of American golfers might never have come to understand what it takes to win one for their country.

Of course, Edwards’ putt was one of many missed shots by either side, just one of an inch here, an inch there that meant the difference between winning or losing a close match. But it’s symbolic of how perilously close the United States came to coming up empty-handed again in an international team competition.

American teams had lost four of the previous five Walker Cup encounters. Europe has prevailed in four of the last five Ryder Cup Matches. The United States’ record in the Presidents Cup is 3-1-1, but the fledgling competition has yet to generate much enthusiasm among players on either side.

It is frequently suggested that today’s U.S. Walker Cup candidates have no passion for the biennial competition, regarding it as little more than a nice entry on the resume when shopping themselves to management company reps who prowl the junior and amateur circuits, hoping to ingratiate themselves with future clients.

Such attitudes, the theory goes, are precursors to the American PGA Tour players’ collective inability to function as a team in the Ryder Cup setting.

Bob Lewis, the U.S. Walker Cup captain, admits that he feared enthusiasm for international team competition among young American players would have been damaged beyond repair had the United States lost again.

“I really believe, if Nigel Edwards would have made that putt on the last green today, I don’t know how much longer we would be fighting this thing. I’ll be honest with you,” Lewis said in the afterglow of the Aug. 14 victory.

“Hopefully, that’s the beginning,” he said, “because we have a lot of good players in this country.”

Lewis hopes his squad will “spread the word” about how gratifying it was to win the Walker Cup. He hopes the next class of Walker Cup candidates will consider emulating Jeff Overton, Michael Putnam, Lee Williams, John Holmes and Nicholas Thompson, U.S. players who postponed turning professional to play for their country.

“If they do, the guys that come along behind them will stick around,” Lewis said. “They will say, ‘You know, I heard about this. This thing is much bigger than we thought it was.’ ”

Lewis believes the camaraderie and team spirit of successful Walker Cup teams can carry over to the Ryder Cup.

“I just think that American golf is back,” Lewis said. “That’s the way I’m going to say it.”

He had his doubts, though, as three late singles matches swung GB&I’s way on the final hole Sunday.

“I was beginning to wonder on the 18th green again, but maybe the tide is starting to turn,” Lewis said. “You’ve got to get people thinking that way and believing it. You’ve got to get players sticking around to play, rather than thinking about themselves all the time. Maybe that’s just all part of it, what will transpire over the next number of years. I happen to think it is.

“Things go through cycles, and I’m hoping this (victory) will sort of start to turn things around.”

The harmony among the American players was evident at every turn. It was genuine – not unlike what we’ve come to expect of the GB&I Walker Cup side and European Ryder Cup teams.

“The one thing (Lewis) said when we first got together was check the egos at the door,” said Williams, who as the senior member of the squad (at 23) and the only U.S. player with prior Walker Cup experience was dubbed “The Governor” by teammates. “I think that was really big because golf is normally an individual sport, and in any individual sport you’re going to have an ego. The one thing that he didn’t want to happen this week was our egos getting in the way of us winning.”

Lewis had scouted these players extensively. A Florida practice session with Lewis’ short list of candidates last winter gave the captain more insight into their personalities and compatibility. The USGA selection committee listened to his recommendations and bucked tradition by naming no one older than 23 to the 10-man squad.

Immediately after the team was announced, Lewis held a practice session at Chicago Golf Club. It clashed with the venerable Western Amateur, prompting the withdrawal of several marquee names. Western officials were livid, calling it a “slap in the face” to the 103-year-old championship.

With all due respect to the Western Golf Association, Lewis did what he had to do, and for all the right reasons.

And to those offended by the omission of mid-amateurs from the U.S. squad, tell the 25-plus set to get some game. The best amateurs in America are college age – or younger. No mid-am played his way onto the team. If any had, he may have upset the chemistry that sustained this exuberant band of brothers.

“This team loved each other,” said Overton. “And we would die together.”

When’s the last time that sentiment was uttered by an American Ryder Cup player?

If the tide is changing, it can’t come fast enough.

Thank you, Nigel Edwards.

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