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U.S. Walker Cup team facing identity crisis

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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.