No stopping ‘perfect team’ at Walker Cup

Members of Team USA celebrate with the Walker Cup.

Members of Team USA celebrate with the Walker Cup.

ARDMORE, Pa. – Somewhere on the grounds at Merion Golf Club, somewhere among the embedded plaques already commemorating Bobby Jones’ completion of the 1930 Grand Slam on No. 11 and Ben Hogan’s historic 1-iron on No. 18 during the 1950 U.S. Open, lies the ingredients to a perfect United States Walker Cup team. Merion officials’ best bet would be to place that commemorative plaque in the locker room, considering that seems to be where most of these types of team golf competitions are won or lost.

Next to captain Buddy Marucci’s locker would be perfect, actually.

“It was a perfect team,” said Nathan Smith, his U.S. teammates draped in American flags and smiles on the 18th green as they celebrated their 16 1/2 – 9 1/2 defeat of Great Britain and Ireland Sunday on a picturesque day at Merion.

“We had a special group of guys, and obviously their play speaks for themselves, but there were no egos, we all got along and we just gelled perfectly. It doesn’t get any better.”

Whether or not you agree with the exact 10 players the USGA selected to represent the U.S. this week, there was no questioning this group’s camaraderie, which had been strengthened from over a week of practice sessions and hangout sessions – and all led to a dominating 6-2 performance in the foursomes sessions.

The GB&I guys often enter this competition every two years with comradeship in their corner, mainly because they play in more team events together in Europe. This year, they ran into an American side full of old best friends and new ones.

Just connect the dots. Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffmann, all of whom went undefeated and combined for 10 1/2 points, are all current or former teammates at Oklahoma State. Bud Cauley, a sophomore at Alabama, has known Uihlein since he was 10 years old and played in the same American Junior Golf Association events as Fowler, Uihlein and Hoffmann for years. Brian Harman and Adam Mitchell were teammates for four years at Georgia, which plays pretty much the same schedule and books the same hotel reservations as Oklahoma State. Wake Forest senior Brendan Gielow is the “nicest kid in the world” and “it's impossible not to get along with (recent Georgia Tech grad) Cameron Tringale,” said Uihlein. At 31 and at least nine years older than anyone else on the team, Smith had no choice but to feel like a kid. And as for Drew Weaver, who Uihlein described as both funny and inspirational? Apparently once you hear his fake Australian accent, there’s no way you can’t like him.

“I’ve got 10 new best friends,” said Weaver, an alternate for the 2007 matches at Royal County Down in Ireland. “Really.”

As the rain poured down on Merion late Friday afternoon, just hours before the start to the matches, members of the U.S. team hung around in their locker room listening to Weaver explain how to use a stretching pole. Some of them joined in the stretching, some of them just watched. Either way, they were all staying loose.

“It’s a little interesting up there,” said Uihlein, walking out of the locker room. “Maybe too much fun.”

Two days earlier during the Americans’ pre-tournament press conference, Brian Harman told reporters, “You should hear some of the jokes we’ve been telling on the bus”; Marucci immediately covered up Harman’s microphone with his left hand and smiled.

“It’s great man. I’ve had such a great time,” said Harman, who played an integral part of the 2005 U.S. victory at Chicago Golf Club but was passed over in 2007. “I’ve been up, I’ve been down, but I’m glad I went through it as an amateur and I’m glad I got to play in two of these things.”

That Sunday’s 10 final singles matches were basically meaningless, the U.S. having already built up an 11-5 lead and needing only 3 points to clinch the cup, was only fitting.

Marucci, who has been a member at Merion for close to 20 years, molded his team around the two morning foursomes sessions.

In his first captainship at Royal County Down, the U.S. also went 6-2 in foursomes on its way to victory. Marucci also went 3-0 in foursomes in his two Walker Cup appearances in 1995 and ’97 and experienced first-hand their emotional consequence.

“When we were successful in foursomes, we won,” said Marucci, part of the U.S. team’s 18-6 victory in 1997 at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y.

“I just think that those eight points, even though there are not as many points, the emotion of those early-morning matches and getting ahead is really significant.”

Marucci’s two power pairings included Uihlein-Smith, which at one point over the first few practice days had gone undefeated against the rest of the team; and Cauley-Fowler, two friends that miss more hair cuts than fairways or greens.

“I think Buddy saw something,” said Smith. “He’s been around for a while and I think he saw and he recognized it early and it really worked out.”

Fowler said that in ’07 at Royal County Down, the team seemed to be split more over the practice days with five players always on the course and the other five either on the putting green or driving range. This week, they played mainly in 10-somes, from their time last weekend at Caves Valley GC outside Baltimore to their final full practice session Wednesday at Merion.

“I’ve played in two U.S. Opens and it doesn’t match up to this,” said Fowler, who will turn professional this week when he tees it up at the Nationwide Tour event in Boise, Idaho.

Fowler joined his former teammate Uihlein as the only two players to go 4-0 for the U.S., Uihlein clinching the winning point on the 17th hole in his 2-and-1 victory over Stiggy Hodson, who proved to be GB&I’s toughest player.

“I honestly believed that we wouldn’t lose this week,” said Stiggy Hodgson. “I thought we had the team and the quality to take these guys all the way and probably beat them. But hats off to them, they’re very strong, they’re a very talented bunch of lads, and you can tell they got along pretty well.”

Marucci, who has lived in the neighborhood surrounding Merion for over 50 years, offered the U.S. a lot of home course advantage and expertise, showing his guys where to hit it and when to take chances.

But in the end, there was a bit more to it. When you win, that usually seems to be the case.

“I don’t know that there’s anything greater in golf for a person like myself than to No. 1, captain the team, and to do it at home and have 10 great guys and to win,” Marucci said. “I just don’t know that there’s any more – I don’t know that there’s another chapter in the story.”

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