Does The Walker Cup Need A Refresh ?

11th September 2015

This week many golf commentators, particularly in the United States, have been discussing an apparent lack of interest in the Walker Cup and throwing out suggestions as to how the match could be rejuvenated and improved.

You may have read Geoff Shackleford’s summary piece – What To Do To Restore The Walker Cup’s Luster ?

Whilst it is obviously important that the contest doesn’t become totally irrelevant and that it remains competitive I personally think, in broad terms, it should be left well alone.

The Walker Cup will never be played in front of 50,000 spectators a day and shown live to a global TV audience of tens of millions.  It is a niche event, albeit one that enjoys a prestigious place in the golfing spectrum.  In striving for change and publicity we must not forget history and tradition, two attributes that set our sport apart.  Of course that’s not to say improvements aren’t possible.

Here’s my thoughts on some of the suggestions that I have seen aired this week: –

Change The Date
I do like the season finale feel a September date brings to the Walker Cup but have to say I can see real benefits to tying the event into the two major Amateur Championships. This was of course the approach in years gone by when travelling was more time consuming and expensive.

Why not play it adjacent to the Amateur Championship or the US Amateur depending on which country is staging it ?  I am sure the competition calendar could be adjusted to accommodate this if required.  Certainly from an R&A and GB&I perspective such a move would be beneficial.  It would ensure better US participation in the Amateur at least every two years – where few of the leading American players compete nowadays – and also secure more entries for home players into the US Amateur Championship.

The September date also sits uncomfortably with regard to both the start of the US College season and the commencement of the Professional Tour Q-Schools.  Traditionalists may argue that the Walker Cup should sit above both of these but the reality is they are both important to many of the players and a distraction that could easily be avoided.

Introduce A More Transparent Selection Process
Both teams have always been selected by small Committees established by the R&A and the USGA.  You still hear references to dodgy selections in years gone by and with regard to GB&I examples of blatant national interest overriding the wider team perspective.  Selection in the USA will always be difficult because of the vast number of really good players at their disposal – a USA 2nd Team would give GB&I a very competitive match such is their strength in depth.

Calls for a Fedex Cup / Race To Dubai standings table to generate year round interest have some merit but in reality already exist.  The two amateur ranking systems, the WAGR and the SPWAR, are both high quality and mean the days of biased and poor selections are long gone.  Good quality rankings are therefore readily available and those that follow this blog have seen me use them this year to highlight the leading players.

Perhaps this one is more relevant for the USA rather than GB&I where the quest for sporting attention is tougher at this time of year ?  No one could question the appropriateness of the R&A’s selections this year and it has been a while since any major controversies so the current approach appears to be working for us.

Review The Rules of Amateur Status To Improve The Quality of Players Available
This appears to me more of a GB&I issue than one that affects the USA.

The College system means that young sportsmen in the United States have a well trodden path into professional sports. Golf is no different – a four year scholarship means plenty of practice and competitive play whilst a degree is hopefully secured on the side.  As a result only in the most exceptional circumstances do young American golfers turn pro before they are 22.

This is not the case in GB&I.  Elite programmes have been established by each of the Home Unions in recent years which have helped, providing both coaching and financial support to leading amateurs.  The problem nowadays is that to become an elite player you have to be working on your golf almost 24/7, not just at weekends which to an exaggerated degree was the case twenty years ago.  It is difficult for the R&A and the Home Unions to ask our best players to do that and then in the same breathe tell them they can’t receive any remuneration for doing so.  Committed to their golf, youngsters are seeing no alternative, depending on their family and ‘sponsorship’ circumstances, but to quickly move into the Pro. game.  This is despite many lacking real experience or frankly the game required. They then end up trapped in development tour sweeps with no real way back.  When the reality dawns the opportunity’s often gone and many simply become disillusioned with the game.

Is it time to keep more of these good players in the Amateur game by moving the status line a little bit further and making it more appropriate for modern day realities ?  I think it probably is and so do the likes of Peter McEvoy who has been espousing similar views for a few years now.

Add Europe to the GB&I Team
I am against this and it will need another very long run of USA victories for me to be persuaded by it.  This is not professional golf and whilst the European Golf Association (EGA) exists it is in no way the well-funded governing organisation that the Royal & Ancient Club (R&A) is.

Of course ‘our’ team would be individually stronger by widening the selection net but at the same time it may lose something on the team front with a more disparate group being involved.  The GB&I lads play against and with each other quite a bit nowadays, which is not so much the case with the Europeans, so know each other well.  To be fair over the last 20 years the GB&I team have generally been performing well so calls for this have largely receded, albeit a loss at Lytham will no doubt see them return.

Perhaps a better alternative would be to insist that the USA pick three mid-amateurs in their team, after all they already handicap themselves with this antiquated selection policy !

The Walker Cup was originally established as an international challenge match with many countries invited to play.  However, in the 1920s only Great Britain & Ireland (GB&I) via the R&A took up the invitation and a match against the USA and United States Golf Association (USGA) quickly became the norm.  The USGA and R&A are also the two governing bodies of world golf so the ties between the two are close with many other meetings taking place during match week.  Then of course there are all the administrator and player friendships that are rekindled every two years.  In many respects it has become more than just a match so it is hard to see the R&A and USGA rushing to change it anyway.

Tweak The Match Rules – Add a Fourball Session / Announce the Singles line ups at lunch time 
The Walker Cup is one of the few team events in what is essentially an individual sport.  Fourball golf masquerades as team golf when two players dove-tail well but it is only when the same ball is being played, as in Foursomes, that golf really is played as a team, or at least as a pair.  So I am all for keeping the existing foursomes format intact.

Perhaps we should have five foursome matches rather than four ? I guess the current arrangement for four on each day reflects the GB&I Team’s perceived lack of depth and a wish to manage the match’s competitiveness to a degree.

The Day 1 and Day 2 Foursome and Singles line ups are both announced on the evening prior to the following day’s play.  Whilst adding to the stress for the Captain’s I agree that added excitement could be brought to leaving the Singles announcement until after the Foursomes have been played or are at least well underway.

Introduce Higher Profile Captains
Both the R&A and USGA seek to appoint Captains from a pool of former Walker Cup players that have remained amateur.  As the rewards in professional golf have risen this has become an increasingly difficult task for both organisations.

I have heard it said that mid-amateur Mike McCoy (52) was largely selected this year based on the fact that he was considered captain material by the USGA but hadn’t yet played in the match.  If even partially true that can’t be a good thing.

I think it would be good to keep the tradition alive but realistically the time has now come for the amateur status condition to be relaxed.  Surely a past performance in the Walker Cup is sufficient for consideration irrespective of the fact the player may have moved on to the professional ranks following their appearance.

I accept that for those seeking to raise the event’s profile there is no denying higher profile Captains, those who have made a name for themselves in the Pro. ranks, may help with greater media interest and publicity.  A Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley or Colin Montgomerie perhaps in the near future.

What do you think ? Is it time to review the Walker Cup or should we leave it be ?   Alternatively do you have any other ideas that could improve the match ?

ME

Copyright © 2015, Mark Eley. All rights reserved.

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