In terms of its relevance to the greater golf culture, we have to admit that the amateur game has largely gone the way of the stymie. The reason for this is the same as it is for almost everything: money. Compared with previous generations, the riches to be had on the pro tours today are irresistible. Most players good enough to survive at the next level will make the jump, leaving amateur golf’s cupboard bare. And fans, of course, can’t be blamed for wanting to see the best of the best in competition. But as much as the world has changed since the heyday of Bobby Jones, the Walker Cup has endured as one of golf’s most enjoyable events.
In fact, it’s probably better now than ever, because there’s competitive parity between the two sides, U.S. and Great Britain & Ireland. As with its professional cousin, the Ryder Cup, the mid-century Walker Cup period was one of total U.S. dominance, but the last 10 matches have been split down the middle. As far as the composition of the squads is concerned, it’s hard to escape the fact that this is essentially a glorified college event, with a bit of mid-am spice thrown in. (We like the USGA’s recent decision to reserve a pair of slots for the old(er) guys and hope the R&A follows suit.) It’s doubtful we’ll see any time soon the stalwart likes of Joe Carr, who played on 11 GB&I teams from 1947 to 1967, or Jay Sigel, a nine-time competitor for the Americans. The glass-half-full perspective, though, is that the Walker Cup can give us a glimpse of players right before they achieve stardom: From Tiger Woods at Royal Porthcawl to Rickie Fowler at Merion, it’s a chance to say, “I saw him back when…”
While the atmosphere of a Walker Cup is plenty competitive, it’s also a celebration of traditional ideals like match play and good sportsmanship. For players, the honor of competing for one’s country can’t be overstated; but the atmosphere isn’t nearly as charged with the nationalistic hoo-rah that now defines the Ryder Cup. For fans, it’s a rare opportunity to see high-caliber golf up close—with smaller galleries, roping is much less strict. Visitors can often stride the fairways right behind the players and get a great look at the types of shots they choose to play. If the sight lines at a typical Tour event are like watching a baseball game from next to the foul pole, the Walker Cup is a seat behind home plate.
For potential host clubs, no tournament carries more cachet. As USGA vice president Tom O’Toole told Newsday: “This is our most sought-after and coveted event.” That includes the U.S. Open, which can mean expensive and controversial course alterations and/or restricted access for the membership for an extended period of time. The Walker Cup’s lighter footprint means the matches are played at the very best of clubs, sites that give architecture fans a field day. The last U.S. venue was Merion, in 2009, in what was partly a fact-finding mission to plan for this summer’s Open. This year it will be played at the National Golf Links of America, which hosted the very first Walker Cup back in 1922. Cypress Point, Pine Valley, and Chicago Golf Club have all had a turn in the past three decades, and the next American venue will be the Los Angeles Country Club, where Gil Hanse’s restoration of the North course has been widely praised. LACC hasn’t hosted a USGA event since 1954.
Each Walker Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. And for all but a few well-connected golfers, it’s the best chance to walk the fairways of some of the most exclusive courses in the world and see up-close some of the world’s next top players.