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Winning And Losing At The Walker Cup

by John Hopkins - September 9, 2013

They are sentiments you heard a lot if you were at the Walker Cup at the National Golf Links, high above the still blue water of Peconic Bay. There was a great deal of talk of the amateur ethos, of the importance of the Walker Cup in the grand scheme of things golfing, of good manners and etiquette, of friendships being made that could last a lifetime.

Such utterances fell gently onto the ears of visitors from Britain, where cries of “play up and play the game” rang out over the playing fields of the 19th century. The idea of lauding victors in laurel wreaths may have originated in Greece but it is recognised in Britain and come to that. How often has one heard the words that it matters not so much whether you won or lost as how you played the game?

Enter Jim Holtgrieve, the U.S. team captain, who had not cut a commanding figure as captain of the Walker Cup team at Royal Aberdeen in 2011, where his much fancied players fell to defeat by two points. There were moments in Scotland when Holtgrieve looked less like a captain and more like a friendly uncle in from Omaha trying to make a good impression on his young relatives.

Win or lose, players from Team GB&I (Rhys Pugh, above left, and Garrick Porteous) and Team USA (Cory Whitsett, below left, Max Homa and Bobby Wyatt) certainly enjoyed themselves

Last week, Holtgrieve still resembled a favourite uncle, round, cuddly and solid, but this time he didn’t look as distant from his 2013 players as he had from the 2011 team.

He admitted he had worked harder in preparing for the 44th Walker Cup than he had for the 43rd. He had attended nine amateur events, he said, and spent more time on the statistics of his players, their chipping and putting more than their length and accuracy, and thinking about pairings.

And then he said the words that could not be said at a Ryder or Solheim Cup, professional events where losing might mean a loss of money, and not about many if any other amateur events either. “It’s a gentleman’s game ... ” Holtgrieve said. “ ... It’s not about winning. It’s about building relationships and that’s what these guys are going to do.”

Holtgrieve continued: “When you study the history of the Walker Cup and George Herbert Walker and why it came about ... it’s not about winning all the time. It’s about World War I and George Herbert Walker wanted to bring two continents back together and there’s no better sport than golf to do that. ... It’s about positive impact on our youth and trying to grow the game.”

At this Holtgrieve paused, as if he realised he might be accused of being a bit preachy or naïve. Then he continued. “How do we grow the game? Only by winning? Come on.”

But surely what matters is winning. As Nathan Smith, who was on the losing U.S. 2011 team, put it: “ ... It’s a lot more funner to win.” Nigel Edwards, the GB&I captain, was asked which was more important to him, building relationships or winning. “I’m here to win,” Edwards replied.

Such an aim is understandable. GB&I are so far behind in overall victories in this event – eight to 35 with one halved – that victory should be the ultimate prize. Peter McEvoy, Edwards’s predecessor as GB&I captain, and one of the very best at that too, once said: “I wanted winners or warriors, players who could get me a point even if it wasn’t pretty. The last thing I wanted was brave losers. We’d had plenty of those in British teams in the past.”

Is a person who doesn’t mind losing a loser? Does that make Holtgrieve a loser, and Downing Gray, the U.S. captain when GB&I won in 1995? “We lost that match in Wales in 1995 and I told them at the ceremony that there were no losers,” Gray said. “There are 20 winners just for being there and representing their countries and upholding the honour of the game and integrity of the game.”

Bobby Jones said that the opponent he really wanted to beat was the man who said to him at the start of their game: “Let’s have a friendly game and not worry too much about the result,” because the man who said that was concealing the fact that he desperately wanted to win.

Holtgrieve did not want to go home and be known in golfing history as the man who captained the U.S. Walker Cup team to successive defeats. But if there is one event that is different, an event about which such apparently contradictory statements can be made, it’s the Walker Cup.

No longer the Walkover Cup, it remains an unusual and exceptional event not just in golf but in sport, an occasion that is remembered with fondness and affection.

Hurrah for Holtgrieve for saying what he said. And hurrah for the Walker Cup.

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