HOYLAKE, England – As the sun crept toward the River Dee on Saturday evening at Royal Liverpool, the U.S. Walker Cup team slipped into the immaculate brick clubhouse for a team meeting.
The huddle was brief. The Americans trailed their Great Britain and Ireland counterparts by two points, but in their minds, they had all the momentum. John Pak’s birdie putt on the par-4 18th hole turned a four-point deficit into a much more manageable 7-5 difference.
No American team had won on foreign soil in 12 years, since an all-star group of future major and PGA Tour winners prevailed at Royal County Down. No U.S. side had trailed after Day 1 and gone on to win – anywhere – since 1963 at Turnberry. But there was no panic.
The mood was strangely, well, confident – just as it had been the night before and all week before that.
U.S. captain Nathaniel Crosby said a few encouraging words, a little “kick in the butt,” as team members described it. But the team’s easy-going leader then turned the floor over to his players, all 10 of them. One by one, they offered up their thoughts.
No person was more passionate than Stewart Hagestad, the team’s oldest player by six years, at age 28, and the only past Walker Cupper on either side. Part of a U.S. rout two years ago at Los Angeles County Club, Hagestad delivered a moving, heartfelt speech worthy of the big screen.
“If you play amateur golf and have any aspirations to turn pro and before you do that the Walker Cup is on that goal list of yours, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but leave everything you have on the table,” Hagestad said, recounting the moment. “You’ve put in so much work and made so many sacrifices to put yourself in this position, and you’ve earned your way to be here, just go do what you’re capable of. All the pressure is on them, everyone here is rooting for them, they’re up, it’s on their territory, they’re supposed to win, you have nothing to lose.
“Whatever you have to do, do it, because you’re going to remember tomorrow, for better or worse, for the rest of your life, so if we can turn the tide and do something really special, it’ll be something we’ll talk about for the next 30 or 40 years.”
Let the stories begin.
After cutting the slim gap in half during Sunday morning's foursomes, the Americans, just as predicted by GB&I captain Craig Watson, came out “all guns blazing,” delivering a closing singles performance for the ages, taking eight of the 10 matches, and winning decisively, 15.5-10.5.
A massively pro-GB&I crowd in the thousands was turned quiet as a U.S. victory neared certainty. Fitting, too, that only then had the clouds finally decided to come out after two days of perfect, pro-American weather.
The wind was supposed to blow at Hoylake. The U.S. players were supposed to struggle in the unfamiliar conditions. And through much of the first day, they did.
At one point on the back half of Saturday’s singles session, the home side had seven of the eight matches painted blue on the boards. It got so bad that Hagestad and 17-year-old Akshay Bhatia, both sitting the session out, opted to retreat inside after their teammates lost all but one of the eight holes they watched.
“It got depressing,” Hagestad said. “We were essentially looking at a death sentence. ... But the way that those guys fought and clawed and brought it back when it looked so bleak was amazing.”
Pak’s point was psychology altering. The Americans had finished the day strong, even the guys who didn’t win. They had new life. And that overconfidence that they possessed during the slew of practice days? It was starting to return, replacing the early nerves.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” John Augenstein said. “... We knew that over time, we were going to beat them.”
It was only a matter of time before this American team got rolling. World No. 1 Cole Hammer, 0-2 after three sessions, headed directly to the range Sunday afternoon after he and Steven Fisk’s foursomes thrashing at the hands of Englishmen Tom Sloman and Thomas Plumb. He was getting too quick and frequently missing the center of the clubface.
But the Texas star found something, like Superman rediscovering his cape, and pounded Conor Purcell, 6 and 5, in singles.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played golf like I did this afternoon,” Hammer said. “You know, I lost my match [Saturday] and normally I would’ve been pretty down, but I felt like our team had a lot of spirit. We felt really good about today the whole time.”
Clearly, others felt the same way. Hammer’s rout wasn’t the only lopsided result in the final session as the Americans finally jumped on the GB&I squad early and often.
“I saw a lot of red on the board [on 12],” said Sloman, who was playing in the anchor match. “I was 4 up at that point, and my head dropped a little bit.”
Hagestad dispatched Harry Hall, 5 and 3, while Bhatia earned his second point of the day with a 4-and-2 victory over James Sugrue. But it was Augenstein’s 4-and-3 win against Plumb that officially sealed the deal for the U.S. and pushed the all-time series to 37-9-1.
“It’s great,” Augenstein said, “but if somebody else had clinched it I’d be fine with that, too, because we’re a team and we won as a team. It’s not all about me or anybody else, it’s just us.”
Crosby very much took a lighthearted approach to captaining, but he also got every player to buy in, strengthening what was already a tight-knit group. Even amid the tough decisions, the whole group stayed on board.
Carrying a major chip on his shoulder after being sat twice in the 1983 Walker Cup at Royal Liverpool, Crosby made a point to play everyone at least three times. While not unanimously popular – even among some members of the team – Crosby’s plan was formulated before the matches even started.
Everyone knew when they were playing and when, if at all, they were sitting. There would be no diversions. Not even Pak’s heroics Saturday were enough to spare him a spot on the bench Sunday morning. (Pak finished as the match's only undefeated player, at 3-0.)
“I was very comfortable with the whole philosophy that I went with,” Crosby said. “It might have had a little bit to do with the scar tissue from 36 years ago, but all 10 of these players had a tremendous two-year period of golf. Regardless of WAGR rankings or recent wins, everybody was qualified equally.”
Entering the weekend, the Americans were clearly the superior team on paper. Half of the U.S. team was inside the top 10 in the world – Hammer (1), Bhatia (5), Hagestad (7), Brandon Wu (8) and Fisk (10). All but one of the players was ranked 21st or better. Meanwhile, the GB&I squad had just three players in the top 25.
With the fear factor of links golf in brutal conditions all but erased, the GB&I team statistically never stood a chance in a 26-point event. Not against this U.S. roster.
“They’re young, aggressive, attractive. They have some swagger about them. That was the way my team was,” said Buddy Marucci, who captained that victorious visiting side in 2007, when the likes of Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson took down Rory McIlroy and company in a one-point thriller. (That win snapped a 16-year road drought for the U.S.)
Marucci still remembers the feeling of watching Jonathan Moore hole an eagle putt on the final hole to earn the clinching point. He still can visualize the celebration, as Moore flipped his putter in the air just before being mobbed by his teammates. He’ll never forget Fowler hanging off the back of a golf cart, letting the American flag blow behind him in the wind.
“It was an amazing sight,” Marucci said, “and we had quite a night after.”
Now it’s this U.S. team’s turn to bask in Walker Cup glory. After the closing ceremony, after the winner’s press conference, Crosby and his boys, donning their green team jackets and wide smiles, grabbed their Cup and headed back to the clubhouse.
The party was just getting started.
“Wow, what a day,” Hammer said. “We hadn’t won on foreign soil since 2007. That was kind of in our heads: it’s been 12 years, it’s time for another American team to win over here.
“This meant the world to me.”
Just as Hagestad said it would.
The U.S. players gave it all they had, they turned that tide and they got the job done. And boy, do they now have one special story to tell.