Mid-am verdict: Gotta earn your Walker Cup spot

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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – How appropriate that this Walker Cup was held in the Hamptons, the ultimate beach getaway.

Because Sunday’s closing ceremony at spectacular National Golf Links unofficially marked the end of summer. Now, it’s back to reality.

It’s back to campus for Alabama teammates Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt, Cal’s Michael Weaver and Michael Kim, Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers and Oklahoma State’s Jordan Niebrugge.

It’s back to the classroom for Todd White, a 45-year-old high-school history teacher in South Carolina, and to the business world for Nathan Smith, a 35-year-old financial adviser in Pittsburgh.

And it’s off to the pro ranks for Justin Thomas and Max Homa, accomplished amateurs who will test the play-for-pay ranks and compete not only for paychecks but precious few exemptions on the big stage.

As the 10 U.S. team members leave Long Island and head their separate ways, so, too, will Jim Holtgrieve, who went 1-1 as U.S. Walker Cup captain and who on Sunday experienced “one of my more gratifying days in my 65-year golfing career.” Now, he’ll make way for Spider Miller, 63, who has already been appointed as the skipper for the 2015 squad.

It’s a significant transition, for it was Holtgrieve who personally lobbied the USGA to enact a controversial mid-amateur rule that dominated much of the pre-Walker Cup discussion. Whether in two years Miller, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur winner himself, has the same vision for the mid-ams remains to be seen.

“Selfishly, I would love to see (the rule) stay in place,” White said. “If not, I’m still going to work my tail off to try and earn a spot on the team, whether it’s as a mid-am or regular.”

Was the new rule effective? Well, a single two-day event is too small of a sample size to render a verdict. Of course, many will remember the exemplary Sunday singles play of White and Smith, who earned the 13th and 14th points, respectively, to clinch the cup for the Americans. But in a 17-9 rout – the U.S. team’s largest margin of victory in 16 years – it was merely coincidental (and, yes, a bit ironic) that those two players secured the winning points.  It’s also worth noting that they combined to go 0-3 in foursomes play, a format in which their experience and leadership was supposed to shine.

“The barometer for me was not if we won or lost,” Holtgrieve said late Sunday night. “I think the barometer was going to be how was it received or accepted.”

In that respect, then, many remain divided. Holtgrieve raised a few eyebrows when he told reporters before the competition even began that “building relationships,” not winning, was the most important aspect of these Walker Cup matches. But then again, that’s the same philosophy he has held for two years.

Still, that stance was in sharp contrast to what came from Camp GB&I, and particularly captain Nigel Edwards, who repeated on several occasions that he and his 10 players were there to win, nothing less. Team GB&I had no such mid-am mandate in place, nor does it seem keen to add one.

“We’re all here to win,” Edwards said Sunday. “Let’s not pretend that we’re not, because kids like competing.”

Were the Americans at a disadvantage at National? Perhaps on paper, where matches are debated, not played. In the end, GB&I holed too few putts, displayed sloppy course management and wedge play, and finished the weekend with only two players boasting a won-lost record above.500. In singles, it lost 13 1/2 of the possible 18 points.

Holtgrieve said the difference between this congregation of players, and the immensely talented squad he brought to Royal Aberdeen in 2011, was camaraderie. “I probably did a bad job of not putting them together as a team,” he said of the group that two years ago lost, 14-12. “There became some individuals. I didn’t have that situation here.”

Much of that can be attributed to the six players (three apiece) who were from Alabama and Cal, but also to the influence of the mid-ams, who not only bring sporty games but also a broader perspective, a bigger-than-me mentality that often helps unify in team competitions.  

“What I wanted to accomplish was for them to be able to contribute to winning the Walker Cup,” Holtgrieve said, “and they did it.”

The curious choice, then, was not having two mid-ams on the team, but rather requiring that they were on the team. College players delayed turning pro – spending money, not making it – in order to try and make the 10-man roster, but the USGA designated two of the available spots to mid-ams in January, before the heart of the season. And it was obvious which two players would eventually be selected – Smith and White, the only two mid-ams who were among the 16 players at the Walker Cup practice session last December.

Why not wait until later in the summer to evaluate the mid-ams – whether there’s one, two, three or none selected – just like the rest of the team? After all, White played eight amateur events this season, oftentimes against his future Walker Cup teammates, and twice finished inside the top 10. Don’t bother comparing that résumé to those of, say, alternates Brandon Hagy and Sean Dale.

Ideally, the selection committee would begin filling out the entire 10-man team around the U.S. Amateur, no sooner, and if there were a few spots left for Smith and White, or any other deserving mid-ams – men who could bring a different dimension to the squad, who could help team chemistry – then add to them to the roster. Essentially, captain’s picks.

In the wake of this past weekend’s thumping, Holtgrieve anticipates that more mid-ams than ever before will try and make the 2015 squad, and he’s probably right. But just like any other player, they should have to secure their spot on the team based on merit, not mandate.