It’s an image forever engrained in U.S. Walker Cup history: a long-haired, 18-year-old Rickie Fowler riding on the back of a golf cart while raising into the air an American flag tied to an umbrella; Colt Knost alongside Fowler, letting his flag blow behind him; Dustin Johnson in the driver’s seat, crammed next to Trip Kuehne and Jamie Lovemark.
Just minutes earlier, Jonathan Moore had sunk a 3-foot eagle putt on Royal County Down’s 18th hole to earn the clinching point in a narrow 12.5-11.5 U.S. victory over a Great Britain and Ireland squad led by teenage sensation Rory McIlroy.
Moments like that have been few and far between for the Americans in recent years. The U.S. win at Royal Country Down marked the first on foreign soil since 1991 at Portmarnock, though that was back when the Walker Cup was still very much a one-sided affair. It also remains the most recent U.S. road triumph, as GB&I teams have won contests at Royal Aberdeen in 2011 and Royal Lytham in 2015.
That’s a run of five losses by U.S. Walker Cup teams in six trips across the pond, and a trend the 2019 side will try to correct this weekend at Royal Liverpool.
It won’t be easy, though, as the U.S. has taken talented teams overseas before (in 2011, with Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay; and 2015, with Bryson DeChambeau and Beau Hossler) only to return home empty-handed.
But to this day, the 2007 squad remains a blueprint to Walker Cup success in unfamiliar territory: talent, check; camaraderie, check; fearlessness, check; and, of utmost importance, foursomes dominance, check.
“We knew we were a special team before it even started,” said Webb Simpson.
The top-to-bottom talent of the 2007 team was unmatched by any preceding teams. Simpson and Johnson have each won a major championship, with Johnson having reached No. 1 in the world and notching 20 PGA Tour victories. Simpson, Fowler and Billy Horschel each have won five times on Tour while Chris Kirk has four wins and Kyle Stanley two. Lovemark and Knost have played multiple seasons on Tour. Moore didn’t have a good pro career, but he did win once in Asia.
The only member of the team to not win a world-ranked pro event was Trip Kuehne … a career amateur.
“At the time, there wasn’t necessarily a standout,” Fowler said. “I knew that all those guys on the team were studs.”
But all those guys also knew how to play together. Besides Fowler, an incoming freshman at Oklahoma State, and Stanley, known as a quiet kid, the rest of the team had essentially grown up playing against each other and hanging out. Simpson and Moore had known each other since before they were teenagers. Kuehne was 35 years old but still competitive in big amateur events.
“Eight of us were really close-knit,” Horschel said. “We all wanted to play every match. We all wanted to play the best we could. But we also wanted our fellow teammates to play well and we pulled hard for each other.”
Horschel and Fowler were the only pair to win an opening foursomes match, and after Horschel downed McIlroy and Fowler routed Lloyd Saltman in the first singles session, they teamed up again to beat McIlroy and Jonathan Saltman in the final foursomes session, which the U.S. swept to enter the final singles matches up 10-6.
They needed every bit of that cushion, too, as Lovemark and Moore were the only two Americans to win a Sunday singles match. Led by McIlroy’s revenge on Horschel, GB&I won four of the first five matches and halved the other, but it couldn’t quite pull off the comeback.
The U.S. team surprisingly collected six of the eight foursomes points that week, overcoming not only their inexperience with the format but also unfamiliarity with links golf. To this day, both factors have been considered the main reasons why U.S. teams have lost on foreign soil.
“Not many guys have played overseas at that point,” Fowler said. “It’s definitely a new territory. I think there’s more opportunity now in amateur golf to travel outside of the U.S., but that was the first time I had really been out of the country and played links golf.”
To combat this disadvantage, U.S. captain Buddy Marucci and his team flew over to Ireland about a week and a half early in 2007, playing several links layouts and competing almost exclusively in foursomes, also known in the U.S. as alternate shot.
“When we got together for the first time with the 24 candidates we had, we played mostly foursomes. … When we got together after the team was picked, we played foursomes a lot. When we got here, we played foursomes a lot,” Marucci said in 2007. “I think, you know, that's one part of it.”
The rest was all skill (particularly strong ball-striking), confidence and determination.
“As an amateur, you’re not used to a big home crowd cheering for the home team,” Simpson said. “But the level and talent of our team, it didn’t really matter where we were.”
In many ways, this year’s U.S. team shares characteristics with the U.S. Walker Cup version of the “Dream Team.” Stewart Hagestad, a mid-amateur and the only American this year with past Walker Cup experience, is the Kuehne of the team. Akshay Bhatia, who at 17 is the youngest U.S. player in Walker Cup history, is the Fowler. Cole Hammer, the top-ranked amateur who is coming off a strong freshman year at Texas, is the Lovemark, who won the NCAA title in 2007 before going 3-0 at Royal County Down.
But at this point, the 2019 team still has much to prove if they are to be fully compared with that 2007 group. None of this year’s team members have won a major, or a pro tournament, or even turned pro for that matter. Oh, and they haven’t captured an overseas Walker Cup, either.
That could change, of course, come Sunday at Royal Liverpool, where this new crop of Americans will try to follow the 2007 squad’s blueprint and write another victorious chapter in the U.S. Walker Cup history book.
– GolfChannel.com's Will Gray and Nick Menta contributed