When the Walker Cup competition ended last Saturday at Seattle, the U.S. had won 11 of the 12 matches and the right to three firm conclusions: 1) American amateur golf is at an alltime peak; 2) Major David Blair (below), a Seaforth Highlander who plays for the British in a very sharp assortment of knickerbockers, can easily outdress any other golfer now active; and 3) the British positively embrace adversity. They have won only one Walker Cup since the event began in 1922, yet the head of the tournament committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club proclaimed on Saturday night that the matches would "continue as long as golf is played."
To take first matters first, the outcome of these 1961 Walker Cup matches was never in doubt to anyone who had watched a few practice rounds by the 10 British and 10 American golfers who were to represent their sides. The British were not at home under the kind of golfing conditions presented by the extremely scenic Seattle Golf Club course. It is hewn out of a forest of enormous evergreens, and its roller-coaster fairways have little resemblance to the wide and windswept seaside links where so much British golf is played. As is its habit, the U.S. Golf Association had prepared the course for championship play by allowing the rough bordering the fairways to grow as much as four to six inches. The British have had little experience playing out of such thick, unyielding grass, and even with the larger American ball, they felt very unsure of themselves.
On the day before the matches began, it seemed obvious to Charles Lawrie, Britain's nonplaying captain, that some sort of drastic strategy was called for to avoid a debacle. It is customary in Walker Cup play for each captain to submit the order of his lineup on the evening preceding each day's play. Lawrie, a handsome, graying 38-year-old Scotsman of long golfing experience, took a gamble. For Friday's foursomes (four matches played with alternate drives and alternate shots), he put his two weakest teams at the head of the lineup and his two strongest at the bottom, hoping his stronger teams might beat the weaker American pairs.
Unlike the masterminds of baseball and football, Walker Cup captains tend to denigrate the importance of their strategic ploys. "There's really not much point in trying to juggle your lineups," Lawrie had said only a couple of hours before he submitted his juggled lineup. "For all you know, the other chap may have decided to do the same thing, and then you've achieved nothing. It's best just to line your players up in their logical order."
All four of the British pairings started shakily on Friday morning. Of the first four holes played in each of the four matches, the U.S. teams won nine and the British only two. These two, logically enough, were won by the team of Michael Bonallack, the current British Amateur champion, and his 22-year-old partner Ronnie Shade, generally considered the strongest British pair, playing against the graybeards of the U.S. side—48-year-old Gene Andrews of Los Angeles and 49-year-old Bob Cochran of St. Louis. But by lunchtime the two Americans, each playing in his first international team competition, had put the wisdom and guile of age to work and built a two-hole lead that was to grow during the afternoon's second 18 holes of match play to a 4-and-3 victory.
Britain's finest hour
The finest British showing was made by 21-year-old Martin Christmas, a tall, skinny, deadpan golfer with a shock of schoolboyish black hair, who was partnered with the 44-year-old Blair. Going into the 36th and final hole, they were all even with the formidable American team of Charlie Coe and Don Cherry, thanks largely to some miraculous putting by the intrepid major and some exceptional recoveries from trouble by Christmas. But on the 36th tee Christmas hit his drive out of bounds, and that lost it. "What a shame. What a shame," some of the gallery sighed, for there was a desperate hope throughout the weekend that somehow the British would put up a real fight for the cup.
For the eight 36-hole singles matches on Saturday, Captain Lawrie again reversed the British batting order with roughly the same results. This time a complete shutout was averted by young Christmas, who played the best British golf of the matches to defeat Charlie Smith of Gastonia, N.C. 3 and 2.
The best British golf of 1961—and most of the previous 30 years, for that matter—is not on a level with the American version, however. "Your chaps just strike the ball better," Captain Lawrie said Saturday when it was obvious that his team would be lucky to win more than a match or two. "It's that simple. You hit the ball with more authority."
The reason is not hard to find. Every first-class American amateur and professional swings at a golf ball with what is basically an exaggerated pivot, a technique that Byron Nelson helped pioneer. This pivot generates a great deal more power than the classic old swing of the Jones-and-before eras and, of particular importance to the amateur golfer who devotes himself to matters other than his golf swing, it can cover up a great many sins in timing and coordination.