Ben Wright: Burning Desire

When the Walker Cup Match takes place at Royal County Down on September 8–9, Great Britain and Ireland will try to win the biennial competition for the fourth time in the last five attempts, which is truly unimaginable, given that our record for so long was one of utter futility, save for one glorious moment I witnessed in May 1971.

There was little hope for the GB&I team that journeyed to the Old Course at St. Andrews to challenge the overwhelmingly superior American Walker Cup holders—other than the choice of venue. It was at St. Andrews in 1938 that we had recorded our lone victory in the matches started by George Walker Bush’s great-grandfather in 1922. Quite frankly, despite the wonderful international friendships engendered by the series, it had become something of an embarrassment, and obviously could only get worse as the American colleges spewed out never-ending conveyor-belt loads of international-class amateurs, mostly on their way to the PGA Tour.

The 17th Green on the Old Course at St. Andrews, with the Swilcan Bridge in the background. Photo by Kevin Murray.

So, despite the fact that my commentating colleague on telecasts, the great teacher John Jacobs, warned me of my folly, I boldly proclaimed in my weekly column in the Financial Times that if our team won I would allow them to throw me in the Swilcan Burn. Jacobs, who had been appointed to coach our hapless squad, was adamant that his charges would win. It was his stated opinion that the American obsession with the “square to square” method had turned their team into a bunch of “tilters” rather than “turners.”

But I felt very safe about my prediction going into the matches, because the American team seemed to have an unbeatable blend of youth and experience. W.C. (Bill) Campbell compiled an unbeaten singles record in the series over 24 years, and he was backed by Marvin (Vinny) Giles III and William (Bill) Hyndman III, who had lost in three finals of the British Amateur, in 1959 to Deane Beman, and in 1969 and 1970 to Michael Bonallack, playing captain of the British and Irish that very week.

Giles had teamed with three of the youngest members of the team, Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Allen Miller III, to win the 1970 Eisenhower Trophy in Madrid, while Steve Melnyk was the 1969 U.S. Amateur champion. The youngest American was Jim Simons, just 21, making his Walker Cup debut.

Bonallack was by far the most experienced of his motley crew, but he had largely underachieved in the Matches, recording seven wins against 10 defeats, with three halves. The other nine players had made only seven Cup appearances between them.

Although I was surprised when the home team won all four morning foursomes the first day, the seemingly inevitable happened after lunch, when the Americans won the singles, 61⁄2–11⁄2. When they took the next morning’s foursomes, 21⁄2–11⁄2, they only needed three victories in the singles to retain the Cup. And in the top match Wadkins duly disposed of Bonallack, 3&1.

But then what seemed to me an impossibility happened with daunting speed. Suddenly the next six matches swung in the home team’s favor. As they did so the deafening applause rang out across the links as the “Auld Grey Toon” seemed to empty. The citizens who were not pouring onto the course were scrambling around rooftops. Four matches came to the 18th hole, and all went to the home team. In the mayhem of it all, I best remember Roddy Carr, son of the late, great Joe, holing a gargantuan putt to finish off Simons by two holes.

I waited in vain for our team to come after me, but they had too much celebrating to do. Minutes later, however, when I saw their caddies coming after me up the 18th fairway, I dived into the press tent, told my wife to bring the car around, and fled the scene. I had no intention of allowing them to bounce me on my head in the shallow Swilcan Burn. Bonallack apologized later, adding that nothing fired his team up more perfectly than my ridiculous column!