The United States got off to a rough start in the 44th Walker Cup Match at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton on Saturday morning.But boy did they ever make a comeback.
The U.S. claimed seven of the 10 afternoon singles matches on Sunday to win the match, beating Great Britain and Ireland 17-9 on the course that hosted the inaugural Walker Cup in 1922. The Walker Cup is a biennial competition between the United States and Great Britain’s best amateur golfers. Strong play in the singles matches in particular was the key to success for the American team, which claimed 13 and 1/2 of the available 18 points in singles. The U.S. took back the cup after losing to Great Britain and Ireland overseas in 2011. The host team in the Walker Cup has won four of the last five matches. The visiting team has not won since 2001, when the U.S. lost on its own turf.
There wasn’t much drama at the end of the day, as Nathan Smith’s win on the 14th hole in his match with GBI’s Nathan Kimsey officially sealed the victory. Kimsey and Smith teed off fifth of the 10 matches on the day. Smith, 35, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was one of two mid-amateur (over 25 years old) players on the team, along with Todd White, 45, of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Smith was certainly one of the most successful golfers on this year’s Walker Cup team, having won four U.S. Mid-Amateur Championships in addition to playing in the Masters four times and also competing twice previously in the Walker Cup, in 2009 and 2011. But he said his match-clinching win on the 14th hole ranked first among the most memorable moments in his career.
“It’s the best feeling in the world right now,” he said, speaking among a crush of reporters and photographers near the 14th green. “This is at the top of the list of anything I’ve been a part of or done. I never wanted a point so much in my life.”
Like Smith, White’s play was also key on the final day. Playing directly ahead of Smith, White beat GBI’s Rhys Pugh 4 and 3 to score the 13th point for the U.S., setting up Smith’s clinching point. Smith said both he and White were honored to be part of the team in a year when the USGA allowed two mid-amateur players on the team rather than the customary one. It’s a rule change they said they hope remains permanent, and their play over the weekend certainly made a great case for it.
“Todd and I were feeling the same thing,” Smith said. “We were honored to be on the team and the guys treated us so well. We both just wanted to give them something. For him to be right in front of me and get it done, it means a lot to us.”
The win also meant a lot to team captain Jim Holtgrieve, who led the U.S. team for the second consecutive match. Holtgrieve teared up as he accepted hugs and congratulations after watching Smith clinch the match.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting for a long, long time,” said Holtgrieve, who not only has coached Walker Cup teams but played on three winning Walker Cup teams in 1979, 1981 and 1983. After experiencing a loss as the captain in 2011, Holtgrieve was eager for another shot this year. “I was hoping I would get a mulligan for 2013 and when I knew it was going to be at National Golf Links, where it all started, I wanted so bad to come here.”
In the morning foursome sessions (alternate shot format with two-man teams from each side) on Saturday, the early momentum certainly favored Great Britain and Ireland. The overseas team seemed on its way to a commanding 3-1 lead until Cory Whitsett, 21, of Houston, Texas, and Bobby Wyatt, 21, of Mobile, Alabama, managed to half their match by winning the par-five 18th hole with a two-putt birdie, making the score 2 and 1/2 to 1 and 1/2 going into the afternoon session. It was all America after that—the home team won six of the eight singles matches in the afternoon to take an 8-4 lead, one it would not relinquish. The strong play continued on Sunday morning, as the U.S. held steady, splitting the morning foursome matches at 2-2 for a 10-6 lead entering the afternoon. By winning two of the foursome matches, the U.S. needed just 3 and 1/2 points to clinch the match.
Also playing well for the U.S. over the course of the match were Wyatt and Michael Kim, 20, of Del Mar, California, both of whom were undefeated. Wyatt garnered the most points for his team with 3 and 1/2. Wyatt, Whitsett and Justin Thomas, 20, of Goshen, Kentucky, were all teammates on the University of Alabama’s Division I men’s golf championship team this year.
The inaugural Walker Cup was played at National in 1922, the teams carrying some of the most famous names in the history of the sport, like Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet. It is the first time the tournament has returned to NGLA. It was played at neighboring Shinnecock Hills in 1977. While the Walker Cup isn’t as flashy of a spectator event as the more well-known tournaments in golf, like the U.S. Open, it did attract some significant star power in the form of former president George W. Bush, whose great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, created the match and is the cup’s namesake. Walker was also a member at National and a former president of the USGA.