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An ever-elusive grail
Herbert Warren Wind
June 01, 1959
The Walker Cup is still an American possession despite a most unreserved British assault. However, the pressure persists
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June 01, 1959

An Ever-elusive Grail

The Walker Cup is still an American possession despite a most unreserved British assault. However, the pressure persists

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Four springs ago, when the 15th Walker Cup match was played at St. Andrews, British golfing fortunes fell to a new low. For the first time since the biennial matches had been begun back in 1922 a British team playing on its own soil dropped all four of the foursomes, in which two partners hit alternate shots, usually held on the first day of the two-day meeting and followed on the second by eight singles. To make matters worse that drizzly May day at St. Andrews, Britain seemed to have the important first foursome all wrapped up. Their two most experienced players, Ronnie White and Joe Carr, held a 1-up lead on Harvie Ward Jr. and Don Cherry with three holes to go. Moreover, White and Carr seemed certain to win the 34th, a medium-length par 4; for after Ward and Cherry had tangled with the famous bunker called the Principal's Nose off the tee, the Americans were playing their fourth at about the same spot on the fairway where the British were playing their second. Then it happened. Carr and White needed four shots to get down from 140 yards out, and the Americans, let off the hook with a halve in 5, went on to take the 35th and the 36th and the match when the British pair continued to falter badly.

Golf defeats at the hands of the Americans are not a new story to the British and they usually can absorb them with honest stoicism, but that shutout in the foursomes was just too much gall and wormwood on the rocks. That very night they decided that their old laissez-faire methods had to be abandoned. It would no longer do to collect for the Walker Cup 10 amateurs who had looked fairly impressive in small events and to hope that somehow they might rise to the peak of their games on the big international weekend—because they seldom did. At the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews the responsibility for revitalizing amateur golf was given to Gerald Micklem and Raymond Oppenheimer, appointed to be the new Walker Cup captain and the new chairman of the selection committee respectively.

In a land where the cry is often raised that amateur golf is a closed corporation except for wearers of the right tie and blazer, Micklem and Oppenheimer scoured every inch of golf territory in their hunt to uncover and encourage new talent. In the summer of 1957, when the Walker Cup was played at Minikahda in Minneapolis, the British, though they ultimately lost 8-3, made their best showing ever in America. At noon on the second day they were actually in the lead. In 1958 the renaissance of British amateur golf continued apace. That summer a team of 10 amateurs trounced a team of British professionals, the same personnel who had beaten our pros for the Ryder Cup. In the autumn in the Eisenhower Cup their four-man team missed tying the Australians and Americans by only one shot.

The British goal from the beginning was this year's Walker Cup match at Muirfield, Scotland, on May 15 and 16. The opening day, the day of the foursomes, finally arrived, and after four years of all this effort and patience and planning, once again the British lost all four foursomes. It meant little that the scores in three matches had been close and that on the second day three British players ( Carr, Reid Jack and Alex Shepperson) won their singles to make the final score United States 9, Great Britain 3, for the story of the 1959 Walker Cup was this minor tragedy of immense work bringing only extreme frustration. "We intend to go on learning and to go on trying," Micklem said calmly at the presentation ceremonies, "and we will be after you again in 1961." That is for certain, for the Walker Cup has become a sort of Holy Grail for present-day British sportsmen. One of these years they will win it. This may happen, oddly enough, in America before it does in Britain. For when they are playing at home, the terrible tension bred by their own awareness of what they must do imposes on the players an intolerable burden, it appears; and piled on top of this is the uninterrupted consciousness of how serious the outcome of each shot is to their supporters, who line the fairways with a graveness that remains undisguised for all their efforts to remind themselves that, after all, this is only a golf match.


The other half of the story of the 1959 meeting is the story of how an intent American team, reacting to the spur of competition with an individual and collective determination, produced golf that was sound and forceful and in the clutch frequently brilliant. They did this on a course which none of the five veterans ( Captain Charley Coe, Billy Joe Patton, Bill Hyndman, Bud Taylor and Harvie Ward) had seen before, and which presented even stranger problems for the four kids on the team (Ward Wettlaufer, 23, Tommy Aaron, 22, Deane Beman, 21, and Jack Nicklaus, 19), none of whom had ever played in Britain. Muirfield, 6,806 yards in length with an approximate par of 35-35-70, is undoubtedly the finest orthodox test of golfing skill in Great Britain. Unlike St. Andrews, which is special to itself, none of Muirfield's bunkers is hidden. There are about 190 of them and they are the key of the course. These bunkers vary in area, naturally, but the average Muirfield bunker is about the size of a service court in tennis. It is about four feet deep at the base of the abrupt front wall, sometimes deeper. These walls are works of art, composed of thin strips of turf, set together as precisely and smoothly as the bricks in a Swedish town hall.

More to the golfer's concern, these bunkers are adroitly positioned. They make Muirfield a severe test of control driving, for you must always play away from the well-advertised danger they hold. In the green areas the bunkers appear in clusters and there they are sometimes five to eight feet below the putting surface. In a wind it takes very accurate shotmaking to avoid them, but this is only half of the problem Muirfield poses. The other is gauging the distance on your approaches. Conditions quite unlike those in America prevail. The unwatered greens are hard, and the resilient, close-cropped fairways are almost as fast, especially after a rainless week. Land your ball on a green or an apron, and unless you are playing into a wind which has killed its flight the ball bounds off like a jack-rabbit. Accordingly, you must figure out how many yards on the fairway before the green you want your approach to alight so that it will expend its bounce and its roll near the pin. Putting is much the same story. The ball always rolls much further than you expect at first. Time after time, when you watch a player putt a 40-footer, you feel very weak-minded, because your first impression is that the ball will fall many feet short of the cup; but somehow it keeps on coasting and coasting, and often it is 10 feet past before it subsides.

What the American team did—and it was no small feat, for the four freshmen especially—was to learn in a matter of days to adjust themselves to these new and ticklish conditions (and to the small British ball) and at the same time not lose the attacking spirit for which our players are correctly celebrated. During the matches it was they who looked like the natives and the British like the visitors, for their superiority was most marked when it came to controlling the ball on touchy pitches and from pitch-and-run shots 100 yards or less from the pin. They putted more steadily than their opponents, for the most part, and were effective playing "The East Lothian wedge," the putter from off the edge of the green. In passing it might also be noted that our players also adjusted nicely to Colonel Evans-Lombe, Muirfield's musical-comedy secretary who not infrequently, as he rides his bicycle relentlessly over the course, will suddenly dart out of nowhere to upbraid a slovenly golfer who has replaced his turf after an iron shot but neglected to replace it so that it is perfectly aligned with the grain of the fairway.

On the Friday when the foursomes took place the wind was fairly stiff, but the air was mild and the sky blue, a continuation of the remarkably pleasant and dry two-sweater spring weather the Scots somberly referred to as a "heat wave." General opinion favored Britain to take the first foursome match in which the established firm of Reid Jack and Douglas Sewell was facing Bud Taylor and Harvie Ward, and also to take the second in which Joe Carr and Guy Wolstenholme (who had beaten Henry Cotton and Dai Rees in their final tune-up) were against Bill Hyndman and Tommy Aaron. In the third—Coe and Patton vs. Arthur Perowne and Michael Bonallack—the United States was a heavy favorite; so much so, in fact, it was wondered why Captain Coe had chosen to place this powerful combination in third position. We were given a slight edge in the last match, in which two of our very good whiz kids, Wettlaufer and Nicklaus, were opposing the only slightly older pair of Michael Lunt, 24, and Alec Shepperson, 23, the latter a law student who is the best of the young British golfers. In one respect, this advance dope was right on the nose. Teaming beautifully, Coe and Patton won the first four holes. Pouring it on all the way for fear they might let up, they were around in 72, a splendid score at Muirfield, and stood 8 up at lunch. They had made only one penalizing mistake, and in the afternoon they made only one more and ran the match out 9 and 8.


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