Tiger Woods. Luke Donald. Rory McIlroy. All golfers, all different. One is a fourteen-time major winner, another the current world number one. The other was the runaway winner of this year’s US Open. For such an individual, self-interested game, it is unique that all three should share common ground. But the biennial head-to-head between Great Britain & Ireland and America’s best amateur golfers, the Walker Cup, has grown into such a prestigious event that it is now a virtual breeding ground for the game’s top stars.
This year’s GB&I captain is Nigel Edwards, and Nouse caught up with him to find out what goes in to planning a Walker Cup campaign.
Preparing for this year’s matches as captain for the first time, rather than as player for the fifth, Edwards reveals – somewhat cryptically – that planning has been “similar in many ways but also different”. Selection for the final ten-man team is not based solely on the world amateur golf rankings, but on what Edwards calls, “team dynamic.”
“How does a player fit into the team? How do foursomes partners fit in? Anyone could go ‘there’s the top players in the world, you’ve got to pick them’. Well, if that was the case every team would be selected like that.”
As captain, Edwards’ role has shifted from taking care of his own game to taking care of the team: “They’ve been, as a group, excellent in asking me for support. Not as in coaching them but in asking me where I think they can improve because they want to be on the team.”
But within this shift the ability to assess the individual remains: “Does that player fit in? Does that player fit with that player? Do we need two Scots together? Two English together? Somebody may need an arm round the shoulder from another player”. The possibilities are almost endless and despite all the best preparation, the blueprints can be scrumpled up and chucked aside should the points not be building on the GB&I tally.
There was a method to selection, however, and it was helped by holding a number of squad sessions throughout the past year. One session included an informal chat with Padraig Harrington, who passed on his Walker Cup, Ryder Cup, and major-winning experience. The Irishman was only supposed to speak for an hour but stayed for three. Similarly, while nothing was left to chance in the build up to the match, there was also an emphasis on attention to detail. Edwards says, “We wanted to make sure that everyone is familiar with the hotel, with the journey from the hotel to the golf course, the course and the club, so that when we get there they’re not spooked by anything.”
Such meticulous planning has paid dividends for the man from Caerphilly in the past. He was part of the 2001 team that was the first GB&I squad to defend the cup. He played a pivotal role at Ganton where his half point meant, for the first time in the home nation’s history, they defeated team USA three times in a row.
“At the time when you’re playing you don’t realise how important your match may be. I didn’t know I’d won until Garth McGimpsey (2003 and 2005 captain) told me on the final green”. If you’re looking for an example of the modern day mantra ‘stay in the present’ by which all sports stars must abide, then look no further than Edwards’ play that afternoon.
He does however admit, somewhat refreshingly, that nervous energy was coursing through his veins: “In the lead up to it you’re nervous, you’re apprehensive, you don’t know what to expect”. And Edwards had a point to prove after being left out of the final day’s play at Merion two years prior.
“My thought process going to that Walker Cup (Ganton in 2003) was I want to play my singles and I want to win 6&5 and I hope it doesn’t come down to me coming down the stretch”. Edwards played his best golf with eight million viewers glued to their televisions and fourteen thousand walking the course that Sunday evening. A huge birdie putt on the 17th drew him level, but it was the 18th in particular, where he hit “some of the best shots” of his career, that confirmed his belief in his own ability.
What advice would he pass on now to someone who may be in a similar position in this year’s match? “There’s probably two things. Enjoy it. That’s easy to say, less easy to do. The other thing is: focus on you. Gary Wolstenholme (who beat a nineteen year old Tiger Woods in the 1995 Walker Cup) is the best example. When he played Tiger he didn’t look at him. He just focused on himself and that’s what I’d be doing.”
As captain, however, Edwards is aware of being too involved. With players like Tom Lewis (record-breaking first round leader of the Open this year) part of the team, the skipper realises that some players need only be pointed in the right direction for them to win points. These “superstar players” have always been a part of Walker Cup history, though Edwards reveals you can’t quite put your finger on what separates them. It’s just there.
In light of this, I asked whether he thinks there is too much emphasis on turning pro quickly and whether, perhaps, one magical week can lull a player into thinking they are ready for the big leagues. “If you’ve got a European tour card I can see why you’re turning pro. If you haven’t got a Challenge tour card I think it’s questionable, especially if you’re very young.”
The costs of top level amateur golf can be staggering. The biggest tournaments in England this year would have taken you from Somerset to Southport to Buckinghamshire. Not to mention the Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and European tournaments players must compete in if they want to be considered for the side. The financial burden is considerable and Edwards acknowledges it: “You can’t just keep playing amateur golf unless you have another career because it does cost money.”
With this continent-wide playing schedule in mind, does he think that, like its big brother the Ryder Cup, the Walker Cup will expand to a European team? “No”, he answered emphatically. “There are different parameters around the professional game. How would you pick a European team without it being a political team? The players generally don’t play all the same tournaments.”
It would appear there is no real need to currently, anyway. Since 1989 – when GB&I ended America’s eight-year winning streak – the honours have been almost even, with America clinching only one more victory. With the last three going team USA’s way, however, GB&I will be keen to exact revenge at Royal Aberdeen.
With the start of the 43rd Walker Cup just days away, captain Edwards reveals no tricks up his sleeve for the American opponents. Indeed, the only thing left to chance will be the weather and how it will dictate playing conditions.
In true leader style Edwards is diplomatic and confident at the prospect of whatever the east coast of Scotland may throw at his team come the second weekend of September: “At the end of the day it’s the same for both teams. Deal with it. I’m all for an even playing field. Let’s have a battle”.