U.S. approach to Walker Cup needs changing

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 15, 2015, 7:36 pm

On this side of the pond, at least, the indelible image from last week’s Walker Cup wasn’t a high five, a hole-out or a hug.

No, the moment occurred during the closing ceremony, when U.S. captain Spider Miller, with tears welling in his eyes, was consoled on stage by one of his players, Bryson DeChambeau.

“I may have broken down a little bit,” Miller said by phone Tuesday. “I guess it was because it was a lot of work and it was all over.”

The Americans had just suffered their worst-ever loss in the biennial matches, a thorough 16 1/2 to 9 1/2 defeat that officially tilted the balance of power to the Great Britain and Ireland team over the past two decades.

After Miller’s final remarks, everyone went their separate way – some to the pro ranks, others back to college, the captain and the two mid-ams to their regular 9-to-5 jobs. But questions linger after another U.S. road loss.

Though it’s foolish to declare a state of emergency after a two-day event, what happened at Royal Lytham only highlighted many of the issues that exist surrounding the U.S. Walker Cup team, from the top-secret selection process to the mid-amateur requirement to the role of the captain.

The U.S. Walker Cup team doesn’t need a task force. It just needs a little common sense.

Start with the selection process, which the USGA guards like a nuclear code.

The blue blazers usually announce the 10 players in two waves – five guys a few weeks before the U.S. Amateur, and then the rest of the team after the Am is completed, in case there’s an American winner who wasn’t thought to be among the 10 candidates.

How do they arrive at those first five names? No clue.

Apparently, there’s an internal points system that the committee reviews, but those results are never made public to the players, parents, fans, media - anyone. Instead, after the first five players are selected, the rest of the would-be contenders are left to wonder how they stack up because they receive, quite literally, no information about their standing.

It is unnecessarily secretive, especially when these decisions have significant ramifications; this year alone, Hunter Stewart and Denny McCarthy delayed turning pro just to have an opportunity to make the Walker Cup team.

Obviously, there needs to be some discretion, because these players are representing not just themselves but also their country, but the USGA loses all credibility by keeping players in the dark during the process. As a result, the organization never has to justify its decisions, saying only that it was a tough choice for the committee and that there were many qualified players in the mix. Heck, this year, there wasn’t even a news conference to discuss the team once it was finalized, despite a two-year run-up to the announcement.

An even more significant mistake is not allowing the captain – who should be the single most important figure in shaping the team – to have a deciding vote on which 10 players make the squad.

Seriously: Miller traveled to 13 college and amateur events this year, speaking to every player under consideration, studying his game, learning what makes him tick, seeing how he could fit into the team … and yet he didn’t have so much as a vote.

Yes, the USGA’s process has almost always yielded a very good squad, but the competitive landscape is changing in amateur golf. Every appearance on a national stage means more money somewhere down the line. The secret society deal doesn’t work anymore.

The most sensible move would be to follow the lead of the Ryder, Presidents and Solheim cups and create a Walker Cup points list that is updated throughout the year.

There is valid concern about a points list that too closely resembles the World Amateur Golf Ranking – which rewards players for sitting out events – but if there is a qualifying system for something called the Concession Cup, a Ryder Cup-style competition between mid-ams, then surely someone is smart enough to figure out how to make it work for the Walker Cup, one of the USGA’s most prestigious events.

The proposal here is that the top five or six points earners get automatic spots on the team, with the captain then making a handful of wild-card picks to fill out the roster as he sees fit.

Not only does this create yet another marketing opportunity for the USGA, but it also generates interest and awareness for an event that heads to Los Angeles in 2017, at a time of year when it is already competing against football, tennis and postseason PGA Tour golf.

Whether there are two mid-amateurs on that next American team is also worth monitoring.

Though it’s unfair to pin a win or loss – or, in this case, a seven-point thrashing – on any two players, it’s worth noting that the two mandatory mid-am selections have now gone a combined 3-8 during the 2013 and ’15 matches, including just 1-5 in this year’s edition at Royal Lytham.

No one has a problem with mid-ams (age 25 or older) making the team – by all accounts, they’re a positive influence in the team room and help give a team of 20-somethings some much-needed diversity. But automatically stamping two of their passports in lieu of better, more accomplished players is a mistake, especially when the Great Britain and Ireland team has no such rule in place.

Keep in mind that the USGA initially instituted this rule to promote sportsmanship and remind the players of the Walker Cup’s greater purpose, which is to better relations between countries.

That sounds good in a press release, but what does it accomplish when the other side doesn’t play ball, too? It’s basically self-sabotage.

Team GB&I’s oldest player at Royal Lytham was 26-year-old Ashley Chesters, and he was no slouch. The two-time European Amateur winner went 3-0-1 and turned pro immediately after the matches. Upon returning home, Americans Scott Harvey, 37, and Mike McCoy, 52, returned to their day jobs as a real estate property manager and insurance executive, respectively.

Miller hopes the mid-am rule continues: “They've integrated great and contributed as much, if not more, than anyone else. They are, in essence, miniature playing captains, and they bring a good bit of maturity and skills to the team.”

Said another team member: “I think that giving lifelong amateurs something to play for is more important than, theoretically, slightly increasing our chances to win.”

Fair enough, but the goal of any team should be to field the most competitive squad possible. After the team was finalized, one USGA insider described McCoy's appointment as a "lifetime achievement award." Hey, it’s not like the Americans need to tone down the intensity of these matches – the GB&I side has won more often than the U.S. over the past two decades, by a 6-5 margin.

There’s more to the Walker Cup than just the final score, of course, but let’s face it: The won-lost record is how these teams are measured and remembered. 

Miller said he hasn’t yet heard from the USGA whether he’ll be in line for a second term. It’s common in sports for the coach, captain or manager to receive too much credit for a victory and too much blame for a defeat. Yet it was clear at Royal Lytham that GB&I’s Nigel Edwards, in his third term as captain, had a clear plan that he executed to perfection. Sure, it involved listening to his players’ input, but make no mistake: Edwards was in charge, and the final decisions were his alone.

Miller, meanwhile, took a more inclusive approach to his captaincy, allowing his 10 players not only to pick their partners, but even the order in which they would play.

DeChambeau, for instance, told Miller that he should sit out the first session because of a sore neck. The NCAA and U.S. Amateur champion proceeded to go 1-0-1 over his next two matches, and then he told Miller that he wanted to go in the anchor spot in Sunday singles, even though the Americans trailed going into the final day and there was a good chance his point wouldn’t count.

Frontloading the lineup was the U.S. team’s only chance of a singles comeback, especially after getting blown out (again) in foursomes. Sure enough, Paul Dunne’s half point – in the second singles match – was enough for GB&I to win back the cup.

Multiple players said both publicly and privately that they relished having more of a role in the process, and that it held them accountable for their play. Had the outcome been reversed, it’s safe to assume Miller would have been applauded, not criticized, for his players-first approach.

“That’s the way I manage my company,” said Miller, a beer distributor in Bloomington, Ind. “From my years of experience in managing people, they tend to respond more to responsibility and thrive on it. I wouldn’t change that for a minute.”

Nevertheless, the Americans still have won only once overseas since 1995, a fact they can (and will) chalk up to their unfamiliarity with the foursomes format and the significant home-course advantage.

So, no, maybe there was nothing they could have done to stop a near-flawless GB&I attack. The home team had a plan, it stuck to it, and was rewarded.

But the worst loss in U.S. team history exposed the flaws in the USGA’s system. The big question now is whether common sense will prevail.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.