LOS ANGELES – About the same time Doc Redman shocked the crowd at Riviera with his eagle-birdie-birdie finish at the U.S. Amateur, the USGA’s International Team Selection Committee was orchestrating how it would handle its own stunner.
Set to unveil the 10-man U.S. Walker Cup roster in a press release at noon Monday, the USGA instead moved up the announcement a day earlier, so it could appear at the end of the Fox telecast. Good thing, because a larger audience witnessed how broken the system really is.
The selection process for any team competition, at any level, always generates controversy, but rarely is the oversight this egregious.
Snubbed for one of the coveted 10 spots was Sam Burns. Like several players who were under consideration, the 21-year-old received a brief phone call Sunday night from USGA president Diana Murphy during which he was informed that he did not make the squad. That was the extent of the conversation. No explanation was given for the decision, nor did the USGA wish to elaborate Monday, saying that they were “private conversations.”
But even U.S. captain Spider Miller, who does not have a vote in how the final roster is constructed, seemed caught off guard. Standing on the 10th green at Riviera, after Redman won the U.S. Am and earned a spot on the team, Miller said Team USA wasn’t finalized until “just recently – probably hours ago.”
“There were literally 16 or 17 players you could have thrown a dart at,” Miller said. “I’m sad that there were several players who played well enough but they were only able to pick 10. It’s very unfortunate. It’s sad.”
And it also confounds.
Though it operates with the secrecy of a special-ops unit, the committee does not make these decisions lightly. But Burns’ situation was a reminder of the ramifications, both financial and professional, and why it’s imperative that the USGA makes a few necessary changes.
By almost any metric, Burns should have been a lock for the U.S. team. Three months ago, the LSU sophomore earned the Nicklaus Award, given to the top college player. Drawing significant interest from sponsors and tournament directors, he could have turned pro in June but opted instead to wait until after the Walker Cup in September. It should not have been a risk, but that decision proved costly: Last month he played the Barbasol Championship, an opposite-field event on the PGA Tour, and tied for sixth. Because he was an amateur, however, he forfeited a $113,000 payday and sacrificed other playing opportunities.
Burns was the Division I player of the year. He remained amateur through the summer. He starred in a Tour event. It’s unclear what else he could have done to show the committee how much making the team meant to him, save for getting an American flag tattoo.
In previous Walker Cup years, the committee has named a handful of players before the Western Amateur, then filled out the rest of the squad after the U.S. Amateur. Burns surely would have been a strong candidate for one of the first few spots, but Miller lobbied to announce the team all at one time, not only to avoid the perception of two tiers but to keep players motivated heading into the two biggest amateur events on the schedule.
Burns was eliminated in the Round of 64 at the U.S. Am – two rounds earlier than newly named Walker Cuppers Will Zalatoris (Round of 16), the same round as Maverick McNealy and one round late than Scottie Scheffler, who missed the 36-hole qualifying cut and doesn’t have a top-20 since earning low-amateur honors at the U.S. Open.
Conduct a blind-résumé test among those four players, and it’s hard to fathom how Burns was the one left off.
Asked for clarification, John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s managing director of rules and governance, said in an email Monday that it would be a “disservice to our process and to all our players to discuss specific deliberations.”
“The USGA and our ITS Committee understands that there are differing opinions on who should be selected for the Walker Cup team,” Bodenhamer said. “This is not unlike the other selection processes in golf and in other sports. Making these selections is never an easy task, as there are also so many fine players and outstanding young men to consider. That was certainly the case this time.”
Though “shocked” by the committee’s decision, Burns struck the proper tone afterward. He thanked the USGA for its consideration – he will serve as the first alternate at Los Angeles Country Club – but also added: “Never been more motivated.”
Burns’ situation immediately recalled fellow LSU Tiger John Peterson’s snub six years ago. Peterson had won the Jones Cup and NCAA Championship and was ranked No. 6 in the world in the summer of 2011, but he was passed over in favor of Blayne Barber. The USGA never explained that decision, either, but there apparently were some questions about whether Peterson’s brash personality would jell with the rest of the team. (Never mind that these players have competed against each other for years and, as grown men, should be able to get along during a two-day competition.)
Not surprisingly, Peterson weighed in Sunday, tweeting: “Unbelievable @USGA. You leave a kid that has a top 6 in a pga tour event off the walker cup. Not to mention he’s the best player in college.”
Even more salient was this: “How r u going 2 keep the next generation of great college players from turning pro if u constantly prove it’s 100% politics @WalkerCup #2011.”
Also left off this year’s team were mid-amateur Scott Harvey, Dawson Armstrong, Sean Crocker and Dylan Meyer, who has struggled to find his form this summer but, at No. 4 in the world, was the highest-ranked player passed over.
A member of the losing 2015 Walker Cup team, Harvey said the USGA has “let down an entire demographic” by selecting only one mid-am to the team. Four years ago, in another shortsighted decision, the USGA decided that two of the 10 team members must be 25 years or older. It was billed as a grow-the-game initiative and a way to promote the spirit of the friendly competition with Great Britain and Ireland – except Team GB&I didn’t follow suit, and the Americans essentially sabotaged their own roster by failing to pick the 10 best players, regardless of age. The U.S. split the past two Walker Cups, but the mid-ams went 3-8 over those two events and the Americans were routed by a record margin two years ago at Royal Lytham.
The USGA wisely backtracked on the two mid-am rule – albeit 19 months into a 24-month process – and selected only one deserving candidate this year: Stewart Hagestad, the 26-year-old financial analyst who won the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur and made the cut at this year’s Masters. The race for the 10 spots was too tight for another automatic handout, but Harvey still expressed his disappointment in being passed over (“The message @USGA has sent to Mid Ams this year isn’t very positive”) in a series of ill-advised tweets, since at age 39, he’ll be under consideration for the next several cup teams.
No tweaks to the Walker Cup selection process will eliminate all of the handwringing and complaining, of course, but the solution to the USGA’s transparency problem is not complicated.
When making roster decisions, Bodenhamer said that the committee prefers a “holistic approach” that takes into account performance (including in USGA events), world ranking, character, sportsmanship, team chemistry, and how a player will represent his country and the USGA in competition.
Bodenhamer said that the committee does not operate from an points list – but perhaps it should, since the current model is too subjective.
Create an algorithm that spits out point values for finishes in amateur and PGA Tour events, with heavier weighting in Walker Cup years.
Make that points list public, so players know where they stand and fans can follow along, thus creating interest all year.
Put the top 7 points-earners on the team.
Leave three picks to the committee – a committee that must now include the sitting captain, since for the past two cups, Miller has attended 15 events a year, and talked with the players and their parents, but does not have a deciding vote.
And then, once the team is finalized, stand up and be accountable.
Explain why Player A was picked over Player B.
Because with so much at stake, they deserve more than a 30-second phone call.