JUNO BEACH, Fla. – With the status of several players for the 48th Walker Cup being uncertain, tournament officials were forced to adjust on the fly.
A stomach virus began sweeping its way through both the U.S. and Great Britain and Ireland squads earlier this week, and the USGA and R&A officially released a statement on Friday morning explaining that the “gastrointestinal issues” were affecting several team members and that food poisoning (believed by players to be the initial cause) and COVID-19 (players have tested daily and all been negative) have each been ruled out.
Now, a decision has been made by the Walker Cup committee to allow teams to employ their alternates throughout this weekend’s matches at Seminole Golf Club for illness-related reasons.
"We have very specific terms for the match. They're confidential from the standpoint of they're usually done well ahead of time," Bodenhamer said. "Well, we're a little flexible this time; we have to be. We have a 10-man team, and we've stuck with that. And we have two alternates, so we will use them as needed based on health and not anything else."
Added Slumbers: "The key thing to remember is it is the original 10 that will be the core."
In normal years, reserves never traveled with the team unless a switch was made before match week (like last month when Texas Tech standout Sandy Scott withdrew with a wrist injury and was replaced on the GB&I squad by Jack Dyer). Also, once the flags were raised the evening before the matches began, the 10-man rosters were locked in.
That will not be the case this weekend with more than half the competitors and both captains, Nathaniel Crosby (U.S) and Stuart Wilson (GB&I), dealing with stomach bugs. Saturday morning’s four foursomes pairings won’t be released until 7 a.m., less than two hours before the start of the first match, and captains will be able to sub in and out players between sessions if a player is ill.
As for the format, Bodehamer anticipates no changes to the 26-point, four-session schedule.
"Fingers crossed," Bodenhamer said. "We believe we're going to be able to do that."
In all, 14 players, seven on each side, have experienced signs of illness, though most have recovered. Americans Davis Thompson and Austin Eckroat were among the first to show symptoms late Tuesday night, with both players missing Wednesday’s practice round. Both returned on Thursday and feeling close to 100 percent entering the weekend.
However, the virus didn’t stop there. On Thursday evening, multiple players from both teams got sick with nearly half of each roster staying back at the hotel for at least part of the day Friday. Just seven players on each team were present when practice began at Seminole earning Friday morning.
"Less than a handful" of players have also received IVs for fluids at a local hospital, Bodenhamer added.
“I didn’t sleep very well [Thursday night] because I was like waiting to get it,” said Cooper Dossey, the U.S. team’s second alternate who was not among the ill. “But I feel great and I don’t have any issues so far, so I don’t know what the heck it is, but it’s knocking them down. … When Austin and Davis got sick, we just thought it was food poisoning, and then when it started doing a domino effect we were like, oh my, god, this is insane.”
Added Alex Fitzpatrick, the GB&I team’s only returner after Scott’s withdrawal and another unaffected by the virus: “I'm being very cautious with what I eat and where I go, and I'm sanitizing as much as I can. But it's kind of luck of the draw really. I'm hoping that it doesn't happen to me and that I can be healthy for tomorrow's match.”
Fitzpatrick, though, has been dealing with an ailment of his own, as a back injury kept the Wake Forest star out of the ACC Championship two weeks ago.
“That was incredibly frustrating,” Fitzpatrick said, “but in terms of having some health issue to do with the team, this is the first time. Normally you kind of get one that's not feeling well, but it's just one person and they might not be well for a couple hours or whatever.
“But this is the first time I've seen kind of like a row of people just get wiped out.”
While some players ventured out to Seminole for some practice by the afternoon, Americans Pierceson Coody and John Pak and England’s Joe Long did not, though Coody and Long – plus both captains – were present at the flag raising ceremony. Both Bodenhamer and Slumbers confirmed that one player per side was still feeling, as Bodenhamer described, “quite a bit under the weather.”
Pak was the only player not at the ceremony, but he told GolfChannel.com on Friday evening that he was feeling better, as well.
No official word was made by either team as to if any players would be unavailable for the opening foursomes session. Eight players are needed per team in foursomes and in Saturday afternoon’s singles session. But alternates on both teams – Jake Bolton and Joe Pagdin (GB&I), and Mac Meissner and Cooper Dossey (U.S.) – have been practicing with their squads all week. Pagdin and Dossey were late adds, with Dossey getting the call after original initial second alternate Garett Reband of Oklahoma opted not to travel to Florida.
“All of us are ready to go whenever Captain calls our name,” Dossey said.
“It's obviously unfortunate,” added Cole Hammer, another healthy U.S. player. “All 20 guys have worked really hard over the last two years to make this team, and to kind of have an issue like this is no fun. But everybody is making the most of it. We're pushing through, and we're just kind of having to make some decisions on the fly here. But everybody has been great, trying to get healthy, but everybody is chipping in for the better of the team. There really hasn't been any issues in the team room whatsoever, and everybody is just excited to get going tomorrow no matter what capacity they're in.”
The goal, however, is for the original squad members to all be competing by Sunday singles.
"After this dreadful year that we've all had, I think one of the glories of this week is we sort of stripped back to seeing this is a match between the 10 best amateurs in the United States and the 10 best amateurs in GB&I, and they know it, and they just want to play," Slumbers said. "We will help them. We will protect them and make sure they're not ill.
"But these guys want to go and play, so I don't see any problem with Sunday."