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Prelude to the Walker Cup

By John Fischer III, president of the Golf Collectors Society:

The Walker Cup, a match pitting teams of the best American amateur golfers against their counterparts from Great Britain & Ireland, was played this past weekend at Los Angeles Country Club. The event originated with an idea from George Herbert Walker for an international golf event to better relationships between countries. It was first held on an informal basis at Hoylake in 1921. The biennial match soon became a premier event for amateur golf and is played on some of the greatest courses. Future venues include Hoylake, Cypress Point and Seminole. It's worth taking a look at how this great event got started.

The record books show the Walker Cup was first played at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York, in 1922, but that’s not the beginning of the story. Another informal competition between the United States and Great Britain took place a year earlier in Hoylake, England. This September the Walker Cup was played on the West Coast at the Los Angeles Country Club, marking the 96th anniversary of that contest – and, in truth, the Walker Cup tradition. (The U.S. won, 19-7, in one of the most dominating results ever.)

The 1921 American team; Bobby Jones, 19, is seated second from the right.

The 1921 American team; Bobby Jones, 19, is seated second from the right.

The Walker Cup was born of two events: World War I, which dragged the U.S. into the world community, and a 1920 meeting on the Rules of Golf between the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The rules meeting was not successful in bringing a united set of Rules, but George Herbert Walker, then the USGA President, came away with the idea of creating an international golf match, modeled on the tennis Davis Cup, to promote goodwill among countries.

In 1920, Walker convinced the USGA Executive Committee to approve a plan for the matches. He agreed to provide a trophy, called the “United States Golf Association International Challenge Trophy.” The press immediately dubbed it the “Walker Cup.” The USGA invited all countries to compete and had high hopes of Australia, Canada, France and others sending teams. But World War I had taken a great toll and no country responded.

W.C. Fownes, Jr., the winner of the 1910 U.S. Amateur, decided to put together an informal team to play the British Amateur at Hoylake over the course of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, in May, 1921, and to challenge the British golfers to a match the day before the tournament.

The press jumped on the idea. The American Golfer and Golf Illustrated ran monthly articles on possible team members. Two-time U.S. Amateur champion Bob Gardner had taken England’s Cyril Tolley to the 37th hole in the British Amateur final in 1929; could he go? Charles (Chick) Evans, with U.S. Open and Amateur titles, and 1913 U.S. Open winner Francis Ouimet had jobs that might keep them at home. It took nine or 10 days to cross the Atlantic by ship. Then there would be two weeks of practice, the match, the British Amateur, perhaps the British Open in June and another 10 days of travel. A golfer needed an understanding boss.

Money was a concern, too. Should the USGA, which authorized the squad, pay travel expenses for the American team? Would payment cast doubt on amateur status? In the end, the players paid their way. Evans and Ouimet joined Fownes, along with 19-year-old rising sensation Bobby Jones, Jesse Guilford, Paul Hunter, J. Wood Platt and Frederick Wright. They arrived in Liverpool on May 9. The match was set for May 21, a Saturday.

Hoylake is a few miles south of Liverpool on the Wirral Peninsula. Royal Liverpool, which had already hosted four British Opens and eight British Amateurs, is relatively flat and treeless, and known for rain and high winds as the tides change on the bordering Irish Sea. British writer Bernard Darwin defined the course thus: “Hoylake, blown by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions.”

There had been no rain for months when the American team arrived. The ball ran down the fairway, and a pitch to the putting surface would take a big hop over the green. The course was unwatered, including the greens, which was new to the visitors.

The U.S. players tried to figure a way to play the rock-hard course. One day in practice, Jones shot 71 in the morning and 80 in the afternoon. He later described Hoylake as “dried out with the turf hard and the greens like glass; they don’t water the greens over there; they believe in letting nature take its course.” Guilford suggested in jest that “topping” the ball might be the best way to get the ball to the green.

The format for the informal match was foursomes in the morning and singles in the afternoon. The U.S. players had little experience with foursomes in which two-man teams alternate shots playing a single ball. A favorite format with the British, it takes extra thought when playing a shot to consider how your partner will play the next.

Many assumed that the upstarts from America, playing under unfamiliar conditions and an unfamiliar format, were in for a rough day. The British were led by Ernest Holderness, Roger Wethered and Cyril Tolley, the defending British Amateur champion. They were joined by Gordon Simpson, J.L.C. Jenkins, C.C. Aylmer, R.H. deMontmorancy, and a young Scot named Tommy Armour, who was soon to make his mark.

Instead, the Americans dominated from the start. “It was marvelous golf,” British writer George Greenwood said of the foursomes. “At the same time it was one of the sorriest debacles from a British standpoint I ever saw. There is little use in going into detail...except to say that Great Britain was hopelessly outplayed in each--every match had been lost.”

The U.S. took five of the eight singles matches in the afternoon for a 9-3 victory. “It was obvious that certain members of the British team were suffering from an acute attack of nerves,” said Hoylake historian Guy Farrar. “America did not play unbeatable stuff...we obligingly dug our own graves.”

It turned out to be a deep grave: the two teams officially competed for the Walker Cup beginning the next year but it wasn’t until 1938 that Great Britain & Ireland (part of Great Britain until 1921) could wrest the prize from the Americans.

Cliff Schrock