SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Perhaps it was only fitting.
When configuring their lineups for Saturday’s opening matches in the 44th Walker Cup Match at the National Golf Links of America, both captains took into account the opinions of the players hitting the shots. That’s not to say they deferred totally to their players, but USA captain Jim Holtgrieve and Great Britain & Ireland skipper Nigel Edwards wholeheartedly welcomed input from their charges.
Especially when it came down to which players were going to sit for afternoon singles, Holtgrieve couldn’t dismiss what veteran Nathan Smith had to say.
Smith and fellow mid-amateur Todd White competed in morning foursomes and then switched to supporting roles for the afternoon as their eight teammates competed in singles.
“The reason we did it is because Nathan Smith stood up in one of our team meetings and said, ‘Guys, I’m playing better than I was this summer, but you guys are playing better than I am,’” Holtgrieve explained. “He said, ‘I want to win.’ He kind of influenced me on that, and then I went to Todd White and he was on the same page, as were the rest of the guys. I wasn’t pushing anybody. When Nathan stepped up, it was kind of a simple decision for me.”
As for the foursomes pairings, Holtgrieve conceded that the decision was also fairly straightforward.
“Yeah, it wasn’t too hard this time. We’ve got two guys from Alabama together, two guys from California … and we’ve got Patrick Rodgers and Justin Thomas, who are really good friends,” Holtgrieve said. “I mean, there’s three pairings right there. We had things kind of worked out when we were here a few weeks ago, and there was no reason to change.”
As for Edwards, he leaned on his team a bit more than he had two years ago at Royal Aberdeen after returning home for a few days earlier this week to visit with his father, who had taken seriously ill. He said the toughest decision was figuring out who should sit in the morning foursomes.
“We basically had five good foursomes teams. What we really needed were five matches to play them in,” he said with a smile. “We all talked about it and came up with the plan. It was tough for the two who sat [Garrick Porteous and Callum Shinkwin]. We really felt like we could go with any combination.”
The combinations he did put together, he said, were “rather natural. We felt like they were very solid pairings and everyone was on board with it.”
Faith Was Rewarded
Despite a nine-year difference in their age, Matt Fitzpatrick and Neil Raymond had a hunch they might comprise a good foursomes pairing. Their 1-up victory over Jordan Niebrugge and Nathan Smith merely confirmed on the scoreboard what the two Englishmen felt in their guts.
“We both knew what the other one could do, and obviously this week we played a lot of foursomes, probably a little bit more than everyone else this week,” said Raymond, 27, of Fareham, England. “It was great preparation for the week. We knew foursomes was going to be big. We’ve played singles hundreds of times but getting our foursomes right was important to me and Matt, and Nigel put faith in us and we’re glad we could live up to it.”
“This was really the first year that I’ve met Neil and spent a bit more time with him on the golf course,” said Fitzpatrick, 18, who last month became the first Englishman since 1911 to win the U.S. Amateur. “We started playing proper foursomes here in practice for this. We had in mind that we might be a good pairing, and it’s obviously worked out today.”
The duo made sure that Edwards knew they wanted to play together. “Yeah, absolutely,” Fitzpatrick said. “With him being away for a few days this week it was quite tough for him to get any information from the team, so he was getting it from the manager and the captain.”
Practice rounds always are a valuable exercise, but they might not have served Walker Cup players well this week given the change in the weather – and the golf course.
Heavy rain and hail struck Long Island – and the National – on Tuesday, making the course play long and softening the greens. But the weather has been dry and sunny since. The course is firming up and becoming more difficult.
“It’s pretty amazing how different it is,” said the USA’s Justin Thomas after he halved his singles match with Nathan Kimsey Saturday afternoon. “We’ve gone from having six inches of rain on Tuesday to a course that looks like it’s been baked out for a week. The other day I flew a 2-iron here into 18 and it stopped on the green. Today I have to think about playing a 4-iron and allowing for it to roll up. It’s definitely a lot harder than it was.”
It’s never easy for either Walker Cup captain to tell a player he has to sit out a session, but when Rhys Pugh, of Wales, extended his overall record in the Match to 4-0 with his Saturday morning foursomes victory, some might have wondered why Captain Nigel Edwards chose to sit him out of afternoon singles.
In 2011 at Royal Aberdeen, Pugh was held out of Saturday foursomes and then won his next three matches to help GB&I to a 14-12 victory.
This year, Pugh could only watch as his teammates dropped 6½ of the available eight singles points on Saturday afternoon.
“You’ve got to make a decision somewhere down the line,” said Edwards. “Ian Woosnam did it with Luke Donald at the  Ryder Cup. It’s easy to say with hindsight, isn’t it?
“If you would have told me that last evening or 1 [p.m.] yesterday afternoon, then I’d have listened to you. Rhys has done very well in the Walker Cup … and I’m sure he’ll do well [Sunday] morning.”