- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

ARDMORE, Pa. | One of golf’s most unheralded gems begins Saturday at famed Merion Golf Club, where a 10-man amateur squad from the United States faces a team from Great Britain and Ireland in the 42nd Walker Cup.

Jack Whitaker, a longtime Merion member who anchored ABC’s coverage of the event in 1985, 1989 and 1991, recently recalled one of his most vivid Walker Cup experiences.

“In 1989, one of the stars of the U.S. team was a young, 18-year-old Phil Mickelson. … The producer asked him to come up into the television booth after he finished his singles match on the last day.

“One of the Americans on the 17th hole at Portmarnock [outside Dublin] hits a ball to the right into a grove of trees in a dark place, and the young Mickelson said, ‘Boy, it’s pretty dark in there, and it’s filled with a lot of Irish women. Aren’t they the ugliest-looking women you’ve ever seen?’

“Well, you can imagine the silence and gasps. … To tell you how popular the Walker Cup was on television, we only got one complaint, and that was from the Irish ambassador to the United States.”

Unlike its wildly popular professional sibling the Ryder Cup, the Walker Cup has enjoyed only limited exposure during its nine decades. That relative anonymity may qualify as a surprise given the extraordinary venues, players and drama the event has showcased dating to its inception in 1922, five years before the Ryder Cup’s debut.

The brainchild of then-USGA president George Herbert Walker, the maternal grandfather of President George H.W. Bush, the match originally was created to strengthen the bond between the United States and its World War I allies in the United Kingdom. The first U.S. team featured Great Triumvirate slayer Francis Ouimet (1913 U.S. Open champion) and Bobby Jones.

The U.S. bunch won that inaugural Walker Cup at the National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y., despite a legendary performance from Bernard Darwin. The famed journalist accompanied the foreign squad to America as a raconteur but was pressed into captaincy duties when Robert Harris took ill on the journey. Though his team lost 8-4, Darwin prevailed in his only match, beating U.S. captain W.C. Fownes in singles 3 and 1.

In the intervening years, the Walker Cup has visited venerable layouts like St. Andrews (eight times), Pine Valley, Winged Foot, Muirfield, Sandwich, Turnberry, the Country Club, Cypress Point and Shinnecock Hills. And it has featured future stars Jack Nicklaus (1959, ‘61), Curtis Strange (1975), Sandy Lyle (1977), Davis Love III (1985), Colin Montgomerie (1985), Mickelson (1989, ‘91), Padraig Harrington (1991, ‘93, ‘95), Tiger Woods (1995) and Rory McIlroy (2007).

Walker Cup stalwart Jay Sigel, who has won more matches in the event (18) than any other player on either side of the Atlantic and twice captained U.S. teams to victories (1983 and ‘85), met Montgomerie in the Sunday singles at Pine Valley in 1985.

“Montgomerie was their star player,” Sigel said. “He had told his team that he hoped he played the ‘old guy’ and that he was going to ‘knock him off.’ Well, I didn’t know that. I found that out afterward. So Colin and I played. I played as well as I possibly could, actually better than I possibly could, and I bumped him off… 5 and 4.”

Perhaps no course in America aside from Augusta National can match Merion’s mound of historical significance. An aesthetic masterpiece with shifting, single-file fairways and diabolical green complexes, the 6,846-yard, par-70 layout will host its record 18th USGA championship this weekend. From the famed quarry that players must traverse on Nos. 17 and 18 to its red wicker baskets instead of flags, Merion is a singular venue.

It was here where Jones completed the Grand Slam at the 1930 U.S. Amateur, crushing Eugene Homans 8 and 7 in the 36-hole final.

It was here, at the 1950 U.S. Open, where Ben Hogan completed his comeback from a near-fatal car crash by hitting his famous 1-iron at the 72nd hole, a moment immortalized by Life magazine photographer Hy Peskin.

In 2013, the Open again will return to Merion’s East Course in a collision between modern power and the more subtle skill requirements of the past.

“You can’t play Merion from the rough,” said U.S. captain Buddy Marucci, a longtime member of the Ardmore club. “And you can’t play it without your head. From the first tee on, every shot requires thought, concentration and execution.”

Marucci debuted as captain in 2007, leading the U.S. team to a 12 1/2-11 1/2 victory at Royal County Down (Newcastle, Northern Ireland). Oklahoma State All-American Rickie Fowler was one of the staples of that success, posting a 3-1 record in the series of foursomes (alternate shot) and singles matches that make up the Walker Cup format. The world’s top-ranked amateur according to Golfweek’s system, Fowler delayed turning pro until after this weekend’s event.

“I’ve had the privilege to play U.S. Opens the last two years, and it didn’t match up to the 2007 Walker Cup experience for me,” Fowler said. “This was kind of my main reason for sticking around. I definitely want to move on and start my career as a professional golfer, but the experience I had in ‘07 with those guys and Buddy and playing for the U.S. was awesome. I wanted to end my amateur career playing at Merion in another Walker Cup.”

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