On September 10-11, the 43rd Walker Cup will be played over the Balgownie Links at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. 10 of the finest amateurs from Great Britain and Ireland will take on their contemporaries from the United States in what promises to be a thrilling contest.
The Walker Cup is the pinnacle of many amateur careers and a number of those who tee it up at Royal Aberdeen in a couple of weeks will likely go on to be the professional stars of the next 10 or 20 years. In the last decade players like Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Lucas Glover, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson have all participated in the event before joining the paid ranks and going on to enjoy worldwide success and fame.
As such, it’s a fantastic chance to see great players before they become household names. Although the tournament attracts sizeable crowds, the galleries will be limited to 7,000 per day and those lucky enough to go along will enjoy a far more relaxed and intimate viewing experience than at the majority of professional events.
The GB&I team for Royal Aberdeen features some fantastic players, many who’ve already enjoyed time in the limelight. Here’s a little more about them:
Tom Lewis (England) – Probably the best-known and strongest player for the home side. The 20-year-old won the Silver Medal at this year’s Open Championship. He received extensive TV coverage there, particularly because he shared the lead in the event after an opening round of 65. He was the first amateur to head an Open field since Sir Michael Bonallack in 1968. He also won this year’s St Andrews Links Trophy and, at the end of 2010, lost to Peter O’Malley in a playoff for the New South Wales Open.
Stiggy Hodgson (England) – The only man on the GB&I team with previous Walker Cup experience – He scored two points from four at Merion in 2009. The Sunningdale player was a runner-up in this year’s Spanish Amateur Championship and was tied 4th in the recent European Amateur Championship.
Jack Senior (England) – It seems incredible but, at 23, Senior is one of the more experienced players on the team. With a handicap of +4.6, he’s a member of Heysham Golf Club in Lancashire. He won this year’s Lytham Trophy in extremely challenging conditions so will not fear the wind at Royal Aberdeen. He also won the New South Wales Amateur Championship at the start of the season.
Andrew Sullivan (England) – He had a superb season in 2010 and further bolstered his position as one of the country’s top amateurs by recording a win and a runners-up finish during the English squad’s tour of Australia. He’s also a proven match winner with a solid performance in England’s “Ashes” series against the Aussies. He’s GB&I’s top player on the World Amateur Golf Rankings at number six.
Steven Brown (England) – Brown made a late run to secure his place in the team. At the start of the season he was only in the English “A” squad. But, he won the English Amateur Championship at Burnham and Berrow in July, then finished runner-up in the European Amateur Championship earlier this month. He narrowly lost out in a playoff at Halmsted after posting a four-round total of 10-under-par.
Rhys Pugh (Wales) – He’ll be the first Welshman in the side since Rhys Davies in 2007. Only 17, he enjoyed a fabulous junior career and has stepped up well into the senior ranks this year. He won the Irish Strokeplay and reached the final of the Welsh Amateur. Fellow Welshman and team captain Nigel Edwards has great faith in the youngster.
Paul Cutler (Northern Ireland) – Another of the team members who’s performed admirably in professional company this year, the Portstewart player finished 21st in this year’s Irish Open on the European Tour. He’s also won the Irish closed amateur and West of Ireland Championships in 2011. Cutler is currently 22nd on the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Alan Dunbar (Ireland) – Dunbar was runner-up at this year’s Brabazon Trophy and also finished second in the West of Ireland Championship. He’s perhaps Edwards’ most controversial selection, many feeling that Scotland’s David Law should have been included ahead of the Irishman.
Law was a recent winner of the Scottish Amateur Championship (for a second time) and is ranked well above Dunbar in the World Amateur Ranking. The Scot is also an Aberdeen native and knows the course at Balgownie well. If results don’t pan out in GB&I’s favour, Edwards could face criticism for omitting Law from the side.
Michael Stewart (Scotland) – He was runner-up in the British Amateur Championship at Hillside and also secured victory at the South African Amateur Championship at the start of the season. The Troon Welbeck player is a former Scottish Boys champion and a renowned links/wind player.
Jams Byrne (Scotland) – The Banchory member (my home club) hasn’t had the best results in 2011 but he secured his place in the side on the back of great performances over the past couple of years. He was runner-up in the 2010 Amateur Championship and narrowly missed out in Open Final Qualifying in both 2009 and 2010. People might say he hasn’t had a significant victory this season but I can confirm he has – he won the Banchory 36-hole Open with scores of 68 and 65.
Of course the Americans will, as ever, field an extremely strong side. It will include Peter Uihlein and Patrick Cantlay, both of whom have performed well in pro events this year. But, I think the US will have their work cut out to get past this strong GB&I team. The Americans have won the last three contests but I reckon this could be the year that run comes to an end.
Not only will the Walker Cup showcase some of the most talented young golfers from both sides of the Atlantic but it will also give spectators, both those attending and those watching on TV, the chance to see one of the UK’s finest and (perhaps) most under-rated golf courses. Royal Aberdeen is a simply superb links. In my mind, it could be the best in Britain never to have hosted the Open Championship.
I went for a sneak preview of the layout last Friday and was lucky enough to enjoy 18 holes in perfect, clear and breezy seaside conditions. The course is in stunning condition. As you’d expect, the greens are in tip-top shape and the ball was running unerringly across the surfaces. The rough is punishing but not totally brutal. The fairways, particularly on the front nine, are narrow and demand great precision. The beautifully presented bunkers are cleverly placed and the emphasis is on strategy from the tee.
The front nine at Royal Aberdeen is often praised and I’d agree that it delivers one of the finest stretches of holes to be found anywhere. But, I think the run for home is where Balgownie will come into its own for The Walker Cup. The closing holes are extremely challenging, especially with the prevailing wind hurting all the way down the stretch. I’d expect plenty of holes to be won with pars towards the end of matches.
On the 18th green, after hacking out from the rough, and pitching on to some 20 feet, I faced a testing par putt across the back of the green. I turned to my playing partner and said, “This for the Walker Cup.” I struck it purely and it ran inexorably towards and into the hole. I raised my putter and looked towards the striking white clubhouse. One chap on the putting green nodded his recognition and I felt elated.
I can only imagine how it might feel to do it for real. I’ve just checked and the oldest player ever to compete in a Walker Cup was Michael Scott for GB&I in 1934 – he was 55…. There’s hope, there’s hope.