JUNO BEACH, Fla. – Mac Meissner and Jake Bolton arrived at Seminole Golf Club last Sunday as first alternates for their respective sides. At the time, neither had much expectation of subbing in.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to play,” Bolton said.
But after a stomach bug steamrolled its way through both team rooms, knocking down 14 players and both captains at different points throughout the week, the extra players, who had prepared with their teammates all week, got the call for Saturday morning’s foursomes session.
And they delivered.
Meissner teamed with Ricky Castillo for a 2-up victory over Englishmen Jack Dyer and Matty Lamb. Bolton and Angus Flanagan hit some clutch shots down the stretch and got a point for the visitors, edging Stewart Hagestad and William Mouw, 1 up, to cap a 2-2 opening session at the 48th Walker Cup.
“To be able to just to be here for the practice rounds, competing with these guys in little matches and stuff, was amazing,” Meissner said, “but when I heard I was going to be able to play I was so excited. I’ve worked my butt off to be able to have a chance to play, and for that dream to come true has been so cool.”
Meissner and Bolton were informed by their respective captains that they’d be filling in just before Friday’s 9 p.m. pairings deadline. Meissner felt comfortable linking up with Castillo, who he played with last Sunday and for a few rounds during last winter’s practice session in Orlando, Florida. Bolton and Flanagan have been past partners in international events for England.
But nothing could fully prepare them for the pressure cooker that is the Walker Cup. Bolton said he wasn’t too nervous on the first tee, but then he hit driver into the left bunker (they made birdie anyway). Meissner hit a spectacular shot out of the same bunker just ahead of the anchor match, navigating the lip and running one onto the fringe about pin high.
“I was thinking if he gets this inside 30 yards of the green it’s going to be an amazing shot, and somehow he got it on the fringe,” said Castillo, who nestled one in close for a conceded par to win the hole.
The momentum was quickly lost, though, as Meissner’s nerves suddenly made their presence known on the second tee box. Meissner was shaking so badly that his driver barely stayed in his hands.
“I thought on that second tee that I was going to go right back to where I was on Thursday night,” said Meissner, who missed half of Friday’s practice after catching the stomach bug Thursday night.
What followed was a vicious hook that didn’t even clear the water, which requires not much more than 200 yards to clear.
“It was the worst shot I’ve ever hit for sure,” Meissner added. “But after the first four holes, we played some really flawless golf, and I think we settled in really well.”
After going 2 down after seven, Meissner and Castillo worked their way back to tied after nine. Later on the back nine, each American made birdie putts from inside of 10 feet at Nos. 14 and 15 to grab a 1-up advantage.
Castillo sealed the deal at the par-4 18th, hitting a brilliant bunker shot for 129 yards to 6 feet for a closing birdie.
While Bolton and Flanagan made four birdies on the front nine, they still trailed 1 down at the turn. They caught fire two holes later, birdieing Nos. 11, 13 and 14 to take a 2-up lead, only to cough it up with two to play. That’s when Bolton sank a 30-footer for par at the par-3 17th after leaving Flanagan a nearly impossible pitch from the junk left of the green. Flanagan’s shot checked hard on the fringe, but Bolton put a confident roll on the long putt to put them up for good.
“We had to make something there,” Bolton said. “I think it will be the best up and down of the week.”
The one on No. 18 wasn’t bad, either. After Flanagan blasted a drive through the fairway and onto the range, Bolton stuck 5-iron from 195 yards out to 8 feet. Flanagan missed the birdie putt, but par was good enough to earn GB&I the morning split.
Now, the teams will turn around for eight singles matches, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Initially, all of the original team members who sat out the morning because of illness were slated to get their first action. But GB&I captain Stuart Wilson made a late sub, keeping British Amateur champ Joe Long out another session and replacing him with Lamb, who will play Quade Cummins. And U.S. captain Nathaniel Crosby planned on sending out John Pak, Tyler Strafaci and Pierceson Coody for singles, but Strafaci was a last-minute pull for Mouw because of illness and had to receive an IV on the driving range before leaving the grounds. It was later announced by the USGA that Strafaci had been taken to a local hospital for further care.
Crosby had said after the morning matches that some of his players still aren’t at full strength. Pak was the only sick player on either team to miss the opening ceremony on Friday evening.
“We’re not all 100 percent, me included,” Crosby said, “but I think the big deal is trying to play guys who weren’t 100 percent 36 holes. And the math would indicate that people had to do that, so it was great that the R&A and USGA were flexible and allowed us to alter the rules slightly to put the alternates in.”
For both captains, it was equally great that each alternate came away with a point.