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The Joys of the Walker Cup

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the upcoming Walker Cup and it's value to aspiring professionals in the modern game

Posted Sep 07, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

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Question: Could the Walker Cup ever be played in a cricket club?  Answer: Yes.  In fact it will happen this coming weekend, September 12th and 13th,  when Britain and Ireland will be attempting to wrest the trophy from the US who retained it at Royal Co Down, two years ago.

The biennial event is being staged for the first time on Merion's celebrated East Course where Ben Hogan made what remains the greatest comeback in the history of the game, by capturing the 1950 US Open, only 16 months after a near-fatal car crash.  But what about cricket?

The answer is that Merion was founded in December 1865 by a group of cricket enthusiasts, the oldest of whom was 22 and the youngest, a mere 14-year-old.  Then, in 1879, the club's activities were broadened to encompass tennis.  And in 1896, golf came to Merion and effectively sounded the death-knell for bat on ball, though its official title remains Merion Cricket Club.
Apart from Hogan's remarkable triumph, the club is notable as the venue where Bobby Jones made his debut in the US Amateur Championship in 1916.  As a 14-year-old standing 5ft 4ins and weighing a chunky 11st 11lbs, he scored a remarkable 74 in the first qualifying round on the West Course but followed it with a humbling 89 on the East, which was clearly a far more daunting proposition.

Yet Merion remained dear to Jones's heart and it was there that he completed the Grand Slam of 1930 with a runaway victory in the US Amateur.  Significantly, when the East Course was extensively upgraded in the mid-1990s, they used the 1930 course as a benchmark. 

The 10-member visiting team, which warmed up at Pine Valley earlier this week, includes a lone Irishman in Royal Dublin's Niall Kearney, winner of the English Open Strokeplay title for the Brabazon Trophy, earlier this year. If this modest representation prompts a hint of disappointment, it is based on the remarkable success of the country's amateur players over the past few years, though they slumped badly in the recent Home Internationals at Hillside. Either way, there's little doubt but that Shane Lowry would have been a serious candidate, had he not opted to join professional ranks after capturing the 3Irish Open at Baltray last May.

All of which leads one to question the importance of the Walker Cup to an aspiring, modern professional.  Would it have been to Lowry's benefit had he resisted the temptation to postpone the decision until perhaps later this month?  Only the player himself could fully answer that question, though the likelihood is that it wouldn't have done him any measurable good.

There was a time when Walker Cup selection was the pinnacle of an amateur's career.  One recalls the esteem in which great amateurs from this side of the pond, such as Joe Carr and Michael Bonallack, held the event, even though it often meant humiliation for them at the hands of young, college- tutored Americans.  As it happened, Ireland twice had the distinction of having no fewer than four representatives back then, with Carr, Jimmy Bruen, Cecil Ewing and Max McCready being honoured in 1949 and in 1951.

Later, there was the joy of Roddy Carr's involvement in a glorious victory under Bonallack's captaincy at St Andrews in 1971, when he set a record by winning three and a half points out of four.  This was to be followed by bitter disappointment for Ireland in having only one other representative, Pat Mulcare, during the remainder of the 1970s.  Still, it remained a cherished distinction through the 1980s, when Ronan Rafferty, Philip Walton, Garth McGimpsey, Arthur Pierse and Eoghan O'Connell added to the Irish roll of honour, while England's Peter McEvoy seemed to set the standard for all.  And it was still believed that it contributed significantly to a player's commercial worth, were he to turn professional.

The big change in this thinking came in August 1990 when Darren Clarke spurned virtually certain Walker Cup selection for the matches at Portmarnock the following year, by turning professional.  His new manager, Chubby Chandler, convinced him it would be of no benefit when it came to signing endorsement deals.  In the process, he implied that the only point in a would-be professional holding on for Walker Cup honours, was for the personal satisfaction involved.   It could be the source of some fond memories in later years.  Nothing more.

It is interesting to note that Sandy Lyle and Padraig Harrington are the only British and Irish Walker Cup players to have gone on to capture major championships, whereas numerous American players have gained this distinction.  This is the background against which Kearney and Lowry took sharply contrasting views of the Merion staging.  For their own reasons, both players made the right decision though, deep down, Lowry must have a tinge of regret at missing the opportunity of treading in Hogan's footsteps.

-Dermot Gilleece

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