U.S. Walker Cup team facing identity crisis

By Ryan LavnerAugust 21, 2013, 4:22 pm

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.

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Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”