Balicki: A long, hot Walker Cup summer

Washington's Chris Williams

Beginning with the upcoming NCAA postseason and stretching through the U.S. Amateur Championship in mid-August, things should get extremely exciting in men’s amateur golf.

After all, it’s a Walker Cup year.

Expect tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic to be filled with players who have high hopes – or perhaps just a dream and a prayer – of landing one of the 10 available spots on either the American team or Great Britain & Ireland squad.

In Walker Cup summers, there’s a lot more grinding, a lot more tension. Every drive, every putt, every shot could mean the difference between being selected to represent your country and being left out.

The 44th Walker Cup will be played Sept. 7-8 at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., site of the inaugural event in 1922. Though the U.S. leads the biennial competition 34-8-1, GB&I has won six of the past 12 and currently holds the Cup, defeating the Americans 14-12 in 2011 at Royal Aberdeen (Scotland) Golf Club.

Because of the U.S. Golf Association’s announcement that a minimum of two mid-amateurs (age 25 and older) will be selected for the American side, expect to see more mid-ams competing in top-level events throughout the summer.

For the past two Walker Cups, Nathan Smith, the record-setting, four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, has been the only mid-am on the team. Not since 2003 has there been more than one mid-am in the American lineup.

That leaves just eight openings to be filled from the college and junior ranks. Talk about kicking things up a notch.

Only three players from the 2011 U.S. squad remain amateurs: Smith, Chris Williams and Patrick Rodgers. Williams also was a member of the winning American squad at the World Amateur Team Championship last year, along with U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox and Golfweek College Player of the Year Justin Thomas. All five are strong contenders for this year’s Walker Cup squad, although Williams, a senior at Washington, is still considering turning pro after the college season.

The USGA is again expected to name a large portion of the team (six to eight players) by early August, soon after the Western Amateur. The last few spots likely will be saved until after the U.S. Amateur a couple of weeks later.

Expect things to start shaking out early. Soon after summer officially arrives, there should be a marked separation between contenders and pretenders.

Beginning with the NCAA Division I Championship, which ends June 2, there are plenty of June events in which a player can up his selection stock.

That includes the U.S. Open, where any amateurs who make the cut against the world’s best players become a giant blip on the Walker Cup radar screen.

Along the way expect players to see the face and feel the presence of U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve, who likely will be living out of a suitcase for the next three or so months.

He’ll be looking at ability, scores and tournament finishes, of course, but he’ll also be keeping a close eye on each serious contender’s personality and how he handles himself on and off the golf course. Don’t be fooled: The latter is an important factor in the USGA’s selection process.

Though Holtgrieve doesn’t have an official vote in the selection of the 10 team members, he does provide plenty of input to those making the decision.

So, for those with Walker Cup aspirations, buckle up and get ready for an emotional summer ride.

Let the tournaments begin.

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