U.S. approach to Walker Cup needs changing

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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.