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USGA updates selection process for Walker Cup

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The USGA International Team Selection Committee revealed changes Thursday to its controversial selection process for the Walker Cup and two other team events.

Selection of the 10-man Walker Cup team will now be announced in two waves, in late summer, before the start of the biennial matches. The first few selections should be obvious (and what was already largely assumed): The top three Americans in the World Amateur Golf Ranking as of early August are automatically named to the team, as well as the 2019 McCormack Medal winner, given to the No. 1 player in the WAGR after the U.S. Amateur. An American U.S. Amateur champion will automatically earn a spot on the team, too, regardless of whether he was on the committee’s radar before the event.

The remaining spots – which must include one mid-amateur (players 25 and older) – will be determined by the USGA’s International Team Selection Committee, the five-member group currently chaired by Martha Lang that previously had full control over all 10 picks.

In a release, the USGA said it will place a “primary emphasis on playing accomplishments, rankings and awards over the past 24 months, with an emphasis on results in USGA competitions.” To warrant selection, players must “have an unquestioned ability” to represent the U.S. with “character, sportsmanship and integrity.”

The USGA’s selection process has come under fire over the past several years, including by on multiple occasions (most notably here and here). Some of the most high-profile omissions were John Peterson, who won the Jones Cup and NCAA Championship in 2011, and Sam Burns, who last summer won the Nicklaus Award as the college player of the year.

The USGA said that Thursday’s announcement was years in the making, not a direct reaction to the Burns snub, but never before had their selection process come under such scrutiny. Walker Cup captain Spider Miller seemed blindsided by the committee’s picks when he answered questions at Riviera. Burns’ only communication with the USGA was a brief phone call with president Diana Murphy after the conclusion of the U.S. Amateur, during which she offered no reason for why Burns was left off the squad. Pressed for more details last August, the USGA’s response through a spokesman was this: “It would be a disservice to our process and to all our players to discuss specific deliberations.” (Apparently, Burns still hasn’t gotten closure. Upon seeing the news Thursday, he tweeted: “Still haven’t told me anything,” followed by a confused emoji.)

The Americans went on to rout Great Britain and Ireland at home a few weeks later, by a 19-7 margin, but the shadiness of the selection process lingered.

“I don’t think it was a question over the past couple of years of if we were going to do something like this, but when we would and what it would look like,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships and governance, said in a phone interview. “We’ve said that we don’t talk about it, and I think those days are over. The players deserve to know where they stand. We wanted to send that message to the kids, and we’re trying to do the best we can to give them some added guidance and transparency.”

The USGA uses an internal points system to assist with its selections, but it has no plans at this time to make that list public. And though the captain does not have a formal vote on the prospective team members – the USGA prefers to keep the captain focused more on relationship-building and strategy – Bodenhamer said that the committee “strongly encourages the captain to give us his input and feedback, and we listen to that very carefully.”

The vagueness of the selection criteria suggests the process won’t be completely transparent – and in that respect the Walker Cup is no different than any other team competition with wildcard picks – but this is at least a step in the right direction, with the 2019 matches set for Sept. 7-8 at Royal Liverpool in England.

“When you get down to the last handful of picks, it gets hard,” Bodenhamer said. “We want to have some of that flexibility but also to send a strong message to the players that we want to tell you information, we want to incentivize you to play in the events that will get consideration, and I think it’ll give the kids a lot more guidance to what they should be doing.”