JUNO BEACH, Fla. – A little more than a week ago, Nathaniel Crosby was having drinks with Rory McIlroy at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida, when the topic of U.S. Golf Association titles came up. Crosby knew he had the edge over McIlroy in that department, having won the 1981 U.S. Amateur and been a part of two victorious Walker Cup teams, as a player in 1981 and a captain two years ago. Plus, he would soon get a chance to increase his Cup haul at his home club of nearly three decades.
“I told Rory, the way I saw it, I was 3-1 against him,” said Crosby, conceding a U.S. Open title to McIlroy, who won the national championship in 2011.
Now, Crosby can officially add another on McIlroy.
In his second and final stint as captain, the 59-year-old son of late entertainer Bing Crosby orchestrated quite the show, as his team of American players descended on famed Seminole Golf Club, conquered everything in its path from a stout Great Britain and Ireland side to a stomach virus, and exited with the 19-pound, sterling-silver trophy after a 14-12 victory in the 48th Walker Cup.
“I now consider myself the horse whisperer,” quipped Crosby, who rarely misses an opportunity for levity.
But as the setting sun cast a beautiful glow on the American celebration, it also helped illuminate Crosby’s passion for this cherished moment.
“I've been blessed with my golf experiences,” Crosby said, “and to be able to win a Walker Cup as captain at Seminole Golf Club is just too good to be true.”
It’s quite clear that Seminole has carved out a special place in Crosby’s heart, much like Donald Ross did in crafting the masterful oceanside layout out of the sand dunes in 1929. Forty-seven years later, in 1976, a 14-year-old Nathaniel would play it for the first time and shoot 75 alongside his father, brother Harry, and his father’s best friend, George Coleman, the club’s green chairman and eventual ninth president.
Over the years, Crosby couldn’t stay away from Seminole, the ultimate player’s club that attracts not only titans of industry but also talented sticks, where currently about one quarter of the membership has competed in a USGA championship. He famously spent four days there with Ben Hogan, the legendary figure who also shared a deep affinity for the Ross design, in late 1977, a couple of months after Bing Crosby’s death. While attending the University of Miami, Crosby annually flirted with the club’s guest limit of 25 rounds per year. And he became a member in 1992, even winning a club championship, before being tabbed as the ninth Walker Cup captain to have belonged to Seminole.
“My father always said Seminole is everything a great golf club ought to be,” Crosby told writer James Dodson, “a place of golf and friendship and not a whisper of pretension, where the highest standards and best traditions of the game are nurtured.”
No wonder current Seminole president Jimmy Dunne III called the club and the Walker Cup the “perfect pairing.” The 101-year-old, international team competition is everything a great golf event ought to be: The best amateur golfers in the world, playing on the most renowned golf courses in the world, and for the pride of one’s homeland and love of the game. So, when the USGA’s Mike Davis asked Dunne eight years ago if he would ever consider hosting a Walker Cup at Seminole, Dunne was instantly intrigued. Less than 24 hours after the initial inquiry, Dunne contacted Davis and said, “Let’s do it.”
Later that year, the club was officially awarded the event, though it would be played in the spring – and not in its typical September slot – to accommodate Seminole’s season, which runs from early October to late May.
To get the golf course ready for its grand debut, the club enlisted architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw for a restoration project, which began in 2016 and lasted three years. The pair removed more than 100 trees, reshaped some of the bunkering and greens, and added new tee boxes and areas for hole locations. Dunne likened the work to touching up an old master’s painting, which is fitting considering many of the players upon arrival last Sunday acted as if they were in the Louvre documenting every Da Vinci with their cellphone cameras.
“I cannot think of a better course to play a Walker Cup match on,” said U.S. player Cole Hammer. “The golf course is going to hold up well, and it'll be a big part of the storyline.”
It was, though not before a virus dominated the pre-event headlines. No, not that virus but rather a stomach virus that ran roughshod through both team rooms, affecting more than half of each side and both captains, Crosby and GB&I leader Stuart Wilson. Initially believed to be food poisoning after a handful of players became violently ill on Tuesday night, doctors later determined the ailment, which struck even more team members two nights later, to be a type of norovirus.
The bug not only forced a rule change allowing alternates, which both teams used in the opening session, but it also kept American Tyler Strafaci and England’s Joe Long out two and three sessions, respectively, with Strafaci getting pulled 30 minutes before his Saturday afternoon tee time and being transported to the hospital for care. (Strafaci would later play both Sunday sessions, going 0-2.)
“It was just amazing that this event happened at all,” Crosby said in his post-match speech, referencing the health-and-safety obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, “and then for us to get the norovirus, or whatever it was that we got, it was really a special twist that we didn’t need.”
Yet, the teams persevered, and by the time Sunday singles rolled around with the U.S. clinging to a one-shot advantage, the virus chatter had become mostly an afterthought. It was finally time to give full attention to Seminole and the skilled amateurs it was tasked with challenging.
With the sea wind whipping and Seminole’s greens rolling as quick as glass in the baking heat, the classic layout played tough all afternoon. When Hogan would visit back in the day, he was known for cleaning up in a particular money game that involved players contributing $5 for every missed fairway or green and the pot going to the player who hit the most fairways and greens. Many of Sunday’s competitors would’ve lost some money in that scenario, especially on the par-4 18th hole, which Crenshaw described as “one of the best [finishing holes] I’ve seen anywhere. … It takes two bold and accurate shots to reach the putting surface successfully.”
After the U.S. secured points in each of the first two matches, including via a 7-and-6 drubbing of previously undefeated Mark Power by Austin Eckroat in the leadoff spot, the momentum began to slow for the home side on the 441-yard finishing hole, where the fan was humming left to right. Long, playing for the first time all weekend, snap-hooked his tee ball into the dunes and had to take a penalty stroke, yet he somehow got away with a 1-up victory over John Pak, who yanked his approach from the middle of the fairway into the brush left, chipped into a bunker and later conceded a clinching double bogey.
“I was just so drained, and it got to me,” Long said. “But it was one of those things where I just tried to get it across the line and get a point.”
GB&I would win four of the five matches that reached No. 18 on Sunday afternoon – most in grind-it-out fashion – but the one that got away, a tie between England’s Barclay Brown and American Quade Cummins, ended the threat of an upset victory.
Hammer, Ricky Castillo and Stewart Hagestad all closed out their matches early, with Hammer, a two-time Walker Cupper, earning the retaining point with a 4-and-3 win over Ben Schmidt and Hagestad, the 30-year-old, mid-am veteran of three Cups, getting the winning point courtesy of a 4-and-2 victory over Ben Jones. (As for the GB&I’s only past participant, Alex Fitzpatrick didn’t record a point in four matches.)
“When [U.S. assistant] Robby [Zalzneck] told me that my match clinched it, I got pretty emotional because this event means so much to me after being a part of a winning team two years ago,” Hammer said, “and being able to do it again here at Cap's home spot was really cool.”
Castillo, the youngest member of the team at 20 years old, topped John Murphy to finish the match as the only player to go 4-0. He’s the second youngest player in match history to accomplish the feat, just more than two months shy of breaking Peter Uihlein’s record set in 2009.
“Nothing was unexpected this week [from Castillo],” Crosby said, “and nothing will be unexpected when he throws up 30 Tour wins in the next 20 years.”
Recent Walker Cup teams have produced loads of top-level professional talent, Tour winners and major champions. The victorious U.S. squad in 2007 included Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler. All but two players who turned pro off of the winning 2017 U.S. roster are currently on Tour, including major winner Collin Morikawa and recent Masters darling Will Zalatoris.
How will this U.S. team stack up years from now? Only time will tell, but as far as amateur rankings are concerned, this was the highest-ranked squad in Walker Cup history with nine players in the top 20 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking. The Americans' average ranking among their 10 original team selections was 12, compared to 67.6 for their opponents, which possessed only a single top-20 amateur.
By most accounts, this should've been another "Walk-over Cup," a moniker born from the storied match's lopsided formative years.
“We looked like a really tough team to beat on paper," Hammer said.
Yet, the guests paid little mind. They put up an admirable fight and nearly solidified themselves as the third GB&I squad to win on foreign soil. It’s still only been done twice, the last time coming at Ocean Forest in 2001. As for the overall series, it still remains lopsided, at 38-9-1, but even with the Americans now winning three in a row, the competition remains fierce as GB&I eyes a home Cup in two years at St. Andrews.
"There were a lot of comments about us hanging in well and fighting really hard, whereas I was more of the opinion we were letting the Americans away with it," Wilson said. "The guys played well, but I think on their day, the match would have been a totally different result.”
In reality, though, it was Wilson’s bunch retreating back to their team trailer adjacent to Seminole’s pink clubhouse after the trophy presentation while the home crowd toasted Crosby and the winning Americans. Among the cheers was one collective exhale, mostly from the captain. He had successfully navigated his team through a pandemic, a completely different virus and a pressure-packed two days against a formidable foe and host venue. And he had done it at, of all places, his home club in front of friends and family.
“I think there was a lot of pressure internally that he put on himself to perform, and I don’t blame him,” Hagestad said. “This club, it’s a true golf club. Everyone has so much reverence for the game and they want to leave it in a better place than it was when they first discovered it. … I think it means the world to him and will be something he remembers for the rest of his life.”
Crosby certainly won’t let McIlroy forget, either.
During that recent friendly banter between Crosby and McIlroy, who also won Sunday at Wells Fargo, McIlroy responded to Crosby’s trophy count with, “Yeah, but I got the right one.”
Sure, Crosby would love to have won a U.S. Open in his career. (Who wouldn’t?) But basking in Walker Cup glory at his beloved Seminole? That’s Hollywood-type stuff.