Balicki: Walker Cup is amateur golf at its best

Rickie Fowler celebrates after Team USA's victory at the 2009 Walker Cup.

For years, not many golf fans paid much attention to the Walker Cup, the international biennial competition between the top amateurs from the United States and Great Britain & Ireland.

Other than the players themselves, their families and friends, and those involved with the two organizations that stage the event - the USGA and the R&A - there was little interest.

A big reason was the American dominance in the first 60-plus years. The inaugural Walker Cup Match took place in 1922 at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y. The U.S. won that one and the next eight as well. In fact, of the first 31 competitions, America won 28, lost two and tied one.

But in 1989, the winds of change started to blow. It was at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, and it was my first Walker Cup. It just took one to get me hooked on this event.

Over the years, I’ve covered just about every “Cup” there is, including a number of Ryder Cups, both here and abroad. Still, to me, nothing compares with the Walker Cup. It’s amateur golf at its finest.

It was easy to get hooked on this competition. To this day, I still feel that 1989 match was the most exciting event I have ever covered.

GB&I dominated much of the play, but the Americans charged back in final day - the singles portion. Coming down to the last match, GB&I held a one-point lead. But the U.S. had its horse, Jay Sigel, bringing it home.

Sigel appeared likely to get his point, force a tie and allow the U.S. to retain the Cup. But GB&I’s Jim Milligan had different ideas. Sigel was 2 up with two to play, but Milligan won those final two holes for a halve, and the visitors scored a 12 1/2 to 11 1/2 victory.

It as the first time GB&I won on American soil.

It was quite incredible, to say the least. And since then, both the USGA and R&A have put a great deal of emphasis on this competition - and the general public has started to grasp its importance.

Yes, the U.S. still holds a commanding 34-7-1 overall lead, but since that victory in 1989, GB&I has won five of the last 11 matchups, including three in a row from 1999 - 2003.

The Americans have since made their return charge and have captured the last three, two by a single point and the last one in 2009 at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., by a 16 1/2 to 9 1/2 score.

This coming Saturday and Sunday at Royal Aberdeen (Scotland) Golf Club - the sixth-oldest golf club in the world - the 10-man U.S. team will be out to make it four in a row as the two sides play four foursomes (alternate shot) and eight singles matches the first day and four foursomes and 10 singles matches the last day.

On paper, it would appear the U.S. is a strong favorite to defend its title.

Captain Jim Holtgrieve, who was a member of three winning U.S. squads in 1979, ‘81 and ‘83, has a potent lineup that includes two U.S. Amateur champions (Peter Uihlein in 2010 and Kelly Kraft in 2011), a three-time U.S. Mid-Amteur champ (Nathan Smith) and a two-time U.S. Junior winner (Jordan Spieth).

Uihlein and Smith are returnees from the last Walker Cup and were 2-0-0 as a foursomes team.

Also in the mix are a pair of players who earlier this year won Nationwide Tour events -- Russell Henley and Harris English -- as well as the world’s No. 1 amateur Patrick Cantlay.

Completing the squad are Patrick Rodgers, Blayne Barber and Chris Williams, all of whom have had outstanding summers.

But, like anything else, the Walker Cup is not won on paper. Just ask that 1989 squad that included the likes of Sigel, Phil Mickelson, Robert Gamez, David Eger, Kevin Johnson and Doug Martin.

Or how about the 1999 American team that featured Jonathan Byrd, David Gossett, Hunter Haas, Matt Kuchar, Bryce Molder and Edward Loar and lost 15 to 9 at Nairin (Scotland) Golf Club.

Some would argue maybe one of the best U.S. Walker Cup teams ever went to Royal County Down in Ireland. Of those 10, eight are currently playing the PGA Tour. I mean, how about a lineup that boasted the likes of Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel, Dustin Johnson, Chris Kirk, Colt Knost, Jamie Lovemark, Kyle Stanley and Webb Simpson? It also included Trip Kuehne, a lifelong amateur, and Jonathan Moore, who is still working his way up in the pro ranks and secured the winning point for the U.S. with an eagle on the final hole of his singles match the last day.

Still, this star-studded group only managed to squeeze out a 12 1/2 to 11 1/2 victory.

The bottom line is GB&I is no longer a push over. There’s plenty of talent across the Pond and the Walker Cup has become one of, if not the, major competitions for GB&I players, which have included those like Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Nigel Edwards (this year’s GB&I captain), Oliver Wilson, Gary Wolstenholme, Rhys Davies and Rory McIlroy.

On paper, this year’s U.S. team will be favored. Doesn’t matter. The final outcome will be decided on the course.

I, for one, can’t wait. I will be covering my 10th Walker Cup this coming weekend and I am as pumped up as ever about it. This is amateur golf at its best and in its truest form.

Let the Match begin and let the entire world of golf take notice. It will be well worth it.

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