U.S. Walker Cup team facing identity crisis

By Ryan LavnerAugust 21, 2013, 4:22 pm

The best event in amateur golf is in the midst of an identity crisis.

Is the goal of the Walker Cup to win, or to provide an invaluable experience for the participants?

To select the 10 best players, or the 10 players that will best fit together?

To celebrate the traditions of the game and the lifetime amateurs, or to showcase the best, brightest and (oftentimes) youngest stars of tomorrow?

The biennial competition, set for Sept. 7-8 at National Golf Links of America, is at a crossroads largely because of a new USGA rule that stipulates that at least two mid-amateurs (age 25 or older) must make the team.

The reason for the mandatory mid-am inclusion, the USGA said, was because these aging warriors can provide team leadership and sportsmanship, as well as a greater appreciation of the Walker Cup’s larger purpose, which is better relations with other countries.

That’s an honorable mission, of course, but it’s one apparently not shared by the opponents across the pond. The 10-man team from Great Britain and Ireland has no such rule in place, and its oldest player, 27-year-old Neil Raymond, is turning pro next month after winning the St. Andrews Links Trophy and reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur.

Even Dan Burton, chairman of the USGA’s international team selection committee, conceded, “You could make the argument on the surface that the (U.S.) team may not be quite as strong statistically.”

So, is the goal to celebrate the lifetime amateur, or to showcase the best U.S. amateur talent?

Burton remains hopeful that the maturity the mid-ams bring to the team will counteract any potential disadvantage, mostly in the form of their “experience and sophistication and ability to lead” in the two foursomes sessions – a format, he says, in which the Americans have traditionally struggled.  

But that’s not exactly true.

In fact, in the last six matches, dating to 2001, the Americans are 23 ½ to 24 ½ against Team GB&I in the foursomes sessions. Even more telling, they are 18-14 in their last four matches, during which they have gone 3-1 in the event. (The U.S. leads the overall series, 34-8-1.)

Instead, what this new rule appears to be is a drastic overreaction to what happened two years ago, when the U.S. side was crushed 1 ½  to 6 ½  in foursomes en route to a 14-12 loss, its most lopsided defeat since a 15-9 drubbing in 2001. On that 2011 U.S. team were Harris English, Russell Henley, Jordan Spieth and Peter Uihlein, among others. Anyone want a rematch? 

It remains to be seen how this current crop will pan out once it hits the pro ranks, but already it boasts the 2013 NCAA champion (Max Homa), 2012 NCAA Player of the Year (Justin Thomas) and former world No. 1 amateur (Michael Kim). Those three players were obvious choices, as were Patrick Rodgers and Cory Whitsett, but the rest of the selection process remains a mystery – to just about everyone, players included.

One of the many appeals of the Ryder, Presidents and Solheim cups is that players and fans alike can track the standings until the cutoff date. It’s transparent. No secrets. Either they make it on merit, or they hope for a wild-card pick.  

The seven-man selection committee, meanwhile, treats the selection of the U.S. Walker Cup team like the government would issues of national security. Apparently, there is an internal system that ranks the tournaments based on strength of field, but its pseudo-points list isn't made public.    

“I’m not really trying to hide anything,” Burton said. “But at the same time these are very difficult decisions, and so we would prefer to keep our process internal.”

Last week he dismissed the notion that the process lacks objectivity, saying that it now is “much, much more objective than it has ever been. I don’t want to make this decision on a young man’s life on a whim.”

But questions linger, even after the team has been finalized.

What if U.S. Junior champion Scottie Scheffler had won another match and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur? Would that have given him enough of a bump to move into the top 10?

Why is second alternate Sean Dale, who won the prestigious Jones Cup and was a finalist at the Western Amateur, behind first alternate Brandon Hagy, who in the past two years hasn't won an amateur event of any kind? After all, Dale could have turned pro and made money, rather than spend it to see how he stacked up after an “objective” selection process.

And shouldn't the captain of the team, the man responsible for pairing these 10 players, have some say – any say – at all, other than minor player evaluations?

The process is most undermined, however, by the mandatory inclusion of two mid-ams. Though the move wasn't sprung on players – they were notified of the impending change last fall – the race for the 10 spots is always too tight to designate two before the season even begins.

Let’s be clear: There are no qualms here with selecting 35-year-old Nathan Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Am champion and two-time Walker Cupper. He deserves that spot. But after Smith there was no other good candidate, and as a result, the USGA opted for Todd White, a 45-year-old high-school history teacher, who reached the semifinals of last year’s Mid-Am and whose best result this season was a T-5 at the Northeast Amateur, where he finished nine shots back.

Smith and White were invited to the Walker Cup practice session last December, and captain Jim Holtgrieve reported that the camaraderie between the 16 players there was “unbelievable,” and that “you can’t believe the relationship and the fun that we had,” and that the other eight Walker Cuppers “are so supportive” of these two mid-ams. That’s no surprise – they are eminently likable and gritty competitors.

But it’s worth asking: Has the USGA identified the 10 best players to compete in its premier event?

Has the USGA shown an indifference to winning, and thus cheapened the best event in amateur golf, in order to celebrate the traditions of the game?

Sure seems that way. 

It’ll take a lot longer than two days on Long Island to solve this identity crisis.

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Spieth, McIlroy to support Major Champions Invitational

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:25 pm

Nick Faldo announced Tuesday the creation of the Major Champions Invitational.

The event, scheduled for March 12-14, is an extension of the Faldo Series and will feature both male and female junior players at Bella Collina in Montverde, Fla.

Jordan Spieth, Rory Mcllroy, Annika Sorenstam, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jerry Pate and John Daly have already committed to supporting the event, which is aimed at mentoring and inspiring the next generation of players.  

“I’m incredibly excited about hosting the Major Champions Invitational, and about the players who have committed to support the event,” Faldo said. “This event will allow major champions to give something back to the game that has given them so much, and hopefully, in time, it will become one of the most elite junior golf events in the world.”

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Rosaforte: Woods plays with Obama, gets rave reviews

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:15 pm

Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reports on Tiger Woods’ recent round at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., alongside President Barack Obama.

Check out the video, as Rosaforte says Woods received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon. 

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”