A Close Match at the 1989 Walker Cup

Going into the final afternoon singles matches of the 1989 Walker Cup Match at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, the U.S. team was trailing 11–5. GB&I had won the cup only twice before, and never on American soil. They needed just a point and a half for victory.

Our captain, Fred Ridley, and the players agreed to put me in the eighth match as clean-up. I was honored, but this was my seventh Walker Cup and I’d been on the winning side each time. In the past, playing last when the matches seemed over had been a strange feeling.

As it turned out, my match did matter because my teammates almost ran the table. Robert Gamez, Greg Lesher, Danny Yates, David Eger, and Kevin Johnson all won full points, while Doug Martin and Phil Mickelson halved. It all came down to my match against Jim Milligan, the 1988 Scottish Amateur champion. If I won, the matches would end in a 12–12 tie and we would retain the cup.

I remember it being a tough day to play golf. The weather was terribly hot and humid, the course was hilly, and we had an 80-minute lightning delay. Still, I was 3-up through 11 and had made four birdies through 14. I was playing nicely. Jim was playing just okay. He said afterward, “I thought that after about 14 holes I could say to Jay ‘Let’s pick it up and call it a halve. It’s a warm afternoon. Let’s go in and have a beer.’”

I was 2-up when we reached 15, a longish par four. Jim was in the deep rough with his second shot, I was on the green 20 feet from the hole. He hit his third shot to about 15 feet. My thought was to lag it up, that he would miss, and I’d go dormie. Instead, he made it for par.

We headed to 16, a par five. Jim laid up about 90 yards away. I had a chance to go for the green in two and went for it, the ball settling pin-high beside the green on a big slope. It was a difficult shot and I didn’t get it up and down. He hit his wedge to a foot. I gave it to him, cutting my lead in half.

More than 5,000 spectators now were following us chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A.” I’d never experienced anything like it. Amazingly, it looked as if we were going to get this done. I just had to stay 1-up.

At 17, Jim knocked his approach over the green, which sloped severely back to front. He was in deep grass, the pin was front center. Not wanting to be past the hole, I played to the front of the green and came up about a yard short in the fringe. I was in the commanding position, about 30 feet from the hole while he was 35 yards away.

When Jim fluffed his third shot, moving it only a few feet, I thought it was over. I didn’t see how he could get up and down for a bogey, let alone a par. Without taking much time, Jim hit his shot, which struck the pin and dropped into the hole. His teammates started jumping and high-fiving. I still thought I could get it up and down, but I didn’t.

I really felt the pressure on 18. The noise was deafening. I needed to win that hole but we halved—with bogeys.

I was exhausted and disappointed. I’d let everybody down. I didn’t clean up when I was supposed to. Captain Ridley made me feel a little better by saying that he wouldn’t have changed a thing about my position, nor would the team. At dinner that evening, Fred said I was by far the best one to handle that difficult situation.

But what really helped was a note from Charlie Yates. Besides being Danny’s uncle, Charlie was our assistant captain. He’d been a very close friend of Bob Jones’s. He wrote that Jones once told him, “You never know who your friends are until you lose.”

I knew who my friends were. My teammates were great. They felt for me. They played some great golf. What are you gonna do?  

Jay Sigel, now on the Champions Tour, was a top amateur player for 20 years.