John Harris is a 45-year-old insurance executive from Minnesota who hits golf balls so straight and is so even-tempered that fellow members at Edina Country Club call him the Reverend. Downing Gray, 59, of Pensacola, Fla., is another straitlaced insurance man. You don't see guys like this shedding tears very often, but on Sunday afternoon at the 13th green at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., Harris and Gray were bawling their eyes out.
Harris had just clinched a U.S. victory in the 36th Walker Cup, amateur golf's version of the Ryder Cup, by whipping Michael Brooks of the Great Britain and Ireland team 6 and 5. The win was noteworthy for several reasons. In addition to becoming the first player to score the winning point twice (he also did it in 1993), Harris raised his singles record to 6-0 in three Walker Cup appearances. Among those who have played four or more singles matches, the only other player with an unblemished record is Bobby Jones, at 5-0. More important, the 18-6 U.S. victory—the second-most-lopsided win ever in the series, which the U.S. leads 31-4-1—exorcised the demons that had haunted Harris and Gray, the U.S. captain, since 1995, when their team was upset 14-10 at Royal Porthcawl in Wales.
"This is the most humbling experience I've ever had in sports," said Harris between hugs with Gray and others. "For two years I poured my blood and guts into this mission, getting back that Cup. It's so rewarding to feel the fruits of that labor. This is sweeter, in a way, than when I won the U.S. Amateur [in 1993] because that was an individual thing. There's nothing to compare to team golf, and we had a team that became a family."
Team chemistry was the missing ingredient in '95. Before going to Wales, the Americans spent little time together, and they seemed to lack focus at Royal Porthcawl. Tiger Woods, for example, played indifferently, winning two points and losing two. Gray made sure that this year's team had jelled before the golfers arrived at Quaker Ridge. Three weeks ago he took the team to Deepdale Country Club in Manhasset, N.Y., for three days of ball-striking and bonding. "At lunch the first day we sat around a table and it felt like a wake," said Gray. "Nobody knew what to say to whom. But by the time we left, I had 10 guys who were joined at the hip."
The trip paid immediate dividends last weekend. (The event is played over two days, with four two-man foursomes matches in the morning followed by eight singles matches in the afternoon. Each match is worth one point.) On Saturday morning the U.S. took a 4-0 lead and never looked back.
The opening surge was highlighted by the play of one of the team's veteran pairings, Jerry Courville and Buddy Marucci, who crushed Brooks and the youngest player in Walker Cup history, 17-year-old Justin Rose, 5 and 4. Courville, 38, the 1995 Mid-Amateur champion, is a systems coordinator for Pitney Bowes in Connecticut, while Marucci, 45, who lost to Woods in the final of the '95 U.S. Amateur, is a car salesman in the Philadelphia area. "Us older guys are proud that we can hold our own," said Marucci. They did that and then some. Courville, Harris, Marucci and Duke Delcher, a 41-year-old real estate agent from Hilton Head, S.C., finished with a combined record of 12-0-1. The team's six collegians—Brad Elder ( Texas), Jason Gore ( Pepperdine), Joel Kribel ( Stanford), Randy Leen ( Indiana), Steve Scott ( Florida) and Chris Wollmann ( Ohio State)—were 12-5-2.
Great Britain and Ireland rallied in the afternoon singles but with the score 7�-3� took a critical blow on the 18th green in the day's final match, between Harris and Gary Wolstenholme, who had upset Woods in singles in Wales. All even, both players reached the 419-yard par-4 in regulation. Putting first, Wolstenholme left his 35-footer five feet short. After Harris two-putted, Wolstenholme missed, giving the U.S. an 8�-3� lead. "That summed up our day," said Barclay Howard, the 44-year-old Scot who was low amateur in last month's British Open. "A killer. A real killer."
The Americans didn't let up on Sunday, winning the first three matches and almost clinching the Cup before NBC began its live broadcast in the afternoon. By then the only question remaining was who would earn the winning point. Harris was a fitting choice. "He must be the world's best amateur," said an admiring Wolstenholme. "He never gets flustered and always plays within himself."
Harris didn't always have his game under such control. Growing up, he threw tantrums and tossed clubs but eventually learned the value of self-discipline from his father, Bob, before entering Minnesota on a hockey scholarship. Harris earned four varsity letters in both hockey (the Golden Gophers won the NCAA title when Harris was a senior in 1974) and golf. After graduating he tried to make a living first as a hockey player (he never got out of the minors) and then as a touring pro (he made it to the PGA Tour in 1976 but earned only $3,055). Harris soon tired of missing cuts. He quit golf and went into the family insurance business. "It was that or lose my sanity," he says.
Harris regained his amateur status in 1983 and is a better golfer now than he was when he was a pro. With the help of his son, Chris, who is a sophomore on the Duke team, Harris developed a short yet powerful swing and superior tempo. He rises at 5:30 every morning to work out and is in great shape. Still, he is never satisfied. After teaming with Elder to win a foursomes match on Sunday morning, Harris said, "I'm frustrated. I'm not emotionally or physically getting the job done the way I should be. I guess I've just got very high standards."