George "Buddy" Marucci Jr., 57, is once again serving as the United States of America captain for the biennial Walker Cup Match. In 2007 at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, Marucci led the USA to a 12½-11½ victory over the highly talented Great Britain and Ireland squad. But the 42nd playing of this amateur competition has a special significance for Marucci, who claimed his first national title last year when he won the USGA Senior Amateur Championship at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. The 2009 Walker Cup Match will be contested at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., which not only has hosted more USGA events (17) than any other venue, but also is Marucci’s longtime home club. USGA Digital Media staff writer David Shefter recently talked to Marucci about this year’s Match and the storied golf club that is hosting it.
USGA: What are your immediate thoughts of having the Walker Cup at Merion?
Marucci: It’s a unique challenge to do this at home. I think it will be a little more stressful. I’m very excited for the club. The membership here is remarkable. I think I have a responsibility to the club as well as to the team. First and foremost, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to [captain the team] anywhere, but to do it at home is really special. We are going to try and put the blinders on about all the other stuff and get down to business here really soon.
What makes Merion such a special venue?
Marucci: Merion is unique. Every shot requires thought. It’s challenging. There are a lot of very difficult golf courses, but there’s always someplace where you can kind of go. But that doesn’t happen here. The minute you stand on the first tee, you have to think about everything you are doing. And that doesn’t mean you have to hit it extremely far. You have to hit a certain kind of shot and if you don’t hit that shot, you are going to be penalized. And if you do hit that shot, you will be rewarded. I think that’s probably the best attribute of a great golf course.
Give us your thoughts of the first eight players chosen for this year’s 10-man squad.
Marucci: I will just say this: The selection process is difficult, and we have put countless hours into trying to make sure that the process is equitable. Obviously we make some people happy, and some people will be disappointed. But at the end of the day I feel very comfortable that we have exhausted all efforts to make sure we've been fair, and we believe that these fellows will represent the country well and do a great job for us.
With so many guys in the mix for spots, was it tougher to choose the first eight this time around over two years ago?
Marucci: I guess maybe you could say that. I think we're comfortable that we have a tremendous group of players, probably 20 or 25 players that could have made this team, and still many that could make the team. Whether it was harder or not, I'm not sure. But certainly the last time we had four or five players that had separated themselves. But when you get down to the last three or four, and you have 10 players that could do it, I'm sure it's always difficult. This has been a difficult selection.
Give us your thoughts about your final two player selections, Peter Uihlein and Cameron Tringale?
Marucci: Both players are tremendous ball-strikers and quality individuals who I think will fit into the team’s chemistry very well. Cameron was a first-team All-American [at Georgia Tech last season] and has been on our radar for quite a while, and Peter is a very talented player that struggled a bit last year [as a freshman at Oklahoma State], but showed great fortitude to turn that around. Both played very well at the U.S. Amateur and I think they both make very strong additions to the team.
You’ve enjoyed a lot of individual amateur success, from your runner-up showing at the 1995 U.S. Amateur, to winning last year’s USGA Senior Amateur. What part does the Walker Cup play in all of that?
Marucci: I think being the captain is the nicest thing that can happen to anybody. I remember I got the call on Feb. 1, 2006, from [USGA President] Walter Driver to do it the first time. That’s a day I will never forget. I think the last three years are the nicest years I’ve ever had in golf. I have had some success in playing, but this is the nicest thing I have ever done.
Because the 2009 USGA Senior Amateur at Beverly Country Club in Chicago begins on the same weekend as the Walker Cup is played, you won’t be able to defend your title. Are you disappointed?
Marucci: No. I will have plenty of time. This to me is the epitome of golf. Certainly I will have a lot of time to defend. It’s not a problem.
You played twice as a player (1995 and 1997) and will soon have captained twice. What’s more difficult?
Marucci: Playing is easy compared to being the captain.
Would it be a fair assessment to say you're looking at past Walker Cup participants Rickie Fowler and Brian Harman to provide leadership? If not, are you looking at anybody individually to provide that leadership?
Marucci: Well, of the first eight, you know, Brian and Rickie are the only two that have played before, so we're certainly going to be looking to them for experience, maybe a little bit of calm over the event, over the team. We have some pretty good players here, so I'm not really worried about that part of it. But, yeah, certainly Rickie and Brian are two successful players. They both have had good records in international competition. They will be the leaders of the team, of these eight anyway.
Can you talk about having mid-amateur Nathan Smith on the team and the committee’s thought process on his selection?
Marucci: I'm going to say the same thing that I said the last time. That is, at this point I look at all individuals and you put them into a team. I try not to break out any of the people individually. Having said that, Nathan has been a tremendous player for a number of years. [At] 31, he's continued to compete. He has been extremely competitive if not superior to most of the players. We're really excited about him being on the team. I'm very confident the way Nathan plays. He's got a great, controlled game. He's a fabulous putter. He'll do very well at Merion.
You had Trip Kuehne on the team last time around as an older guy. Now you have Nathan Smith. Did you feel that was important to have that one mid-amateur player on the team?
Marucci: That's a tough one. I'm not sure that Nathan plays the same role that Trip played. Trip was a little more seasoned in international competition than Nathan. But, you know, Trip certainly helped the last time as a little bit of a buffer. I think that Rickie, even though he's young, but he's played before, and he's been on one of the teams that I captained, will probably fill that role, and maybe even Brian will help fill that role. Nathan certainly is qualified to do that. But it's going to be his first experience. I think he's going to be kind of feeling his way through there. Trip had played twice before. We played on a team together. It was kind of a different relationship. As far as mid-amateurs [25 and over], if they're competitive, I think they should be considered. If they're not competitive, then I think they have to kind of be with everybody else.
With the Match in the U.S., does your preparation change much from 2007?
Marucci: I hope the preparation will be the same. You don’t have to worry about the travel [to the Match], so that will be easy. You don’t have to worry about the food or the hotel accommodations. Restaurants and all that stuff will be a lot easier. It will be more focus on the team selection. And I don’t have to deal with many of those other issues.
Being a Merion member, does it make things more chaotic in terms of demands on your time?
Marucci: None of that yet. The club here has got this so well organized, so I don’t really have to worry about that. As a matter of fact, I would have otherwise been involved if I hadn’t been captain. And I’ve been able to step aside from all of that stuff. It’s actually been pretty easy.
Let’s briefly talk about the 2007 Match. It certainly was a thrilling competition, but do you have a favorite moment?
Marucci: Walking up the 18th hole with Jonathan Moore [in Sunday singles]. Some people questioned whether he should be on that team. I have to say without a doubt he’s the finest young man I’ve ever met in my life. And to watch him hit that [4-iron] shot [to 3 feet for eagle], turn around and look at me, and to walk that 250 yards up that [par-5] hole just kind of chatting – and we didn’t even talk about the shot – and all those people around and to be there with him for that six minutes that was really marvelous. It was a wonderful experience.
One of the toughest things a Walker Cup captain must do is fill out the lineup, which requires finding right combinations, especially for foursomes (alternate shot). How do you find the right chemistry?
Marucci: Chemistry is so important. The coaching part is getting to know them, and then making it so they can go do it.
How much coaching in terms of psychology and strategy does the captain do with the players?
Marucci: It depends on the makeup of the team; the ages and the maturity level. Part of the real benefit of being able to go out and play in tournaments during the year is being able to watch these young men act and see how they get along with each other. There’s nothing about their [physical] game. The coaching really gets to be the chemistry. Who is going to play with whom in the alternate shot [foursomes]? It’s all the little things, trying to get the logistics out of the way, so they don’t have to worry about their families, they don’t have to worry about their girlfriends and really focusing on the golf course. I was surprised after the second day [at Royal County Down] that these young men had adapted immediately to what they were going to have to do. That’s a role that I thought I was going to have to play, which I didn’t. It’s pairing them up to free them up to let them go do the thing they have to do. That’s pretty much the job.
Obviously, you know Merion very well. How much inside information can you give your team and will that be an advantage?
Marucci: Some might think at Merion, because I have been here, that I’ll be able to guide them around. Certainly I know the golf course very well, but I don’t play the game the way they do. What they’re thinking and what I may be thinking is something entirely different. The one thing that I know, and I think that we learned over in [Northern] Ireland, is that you can’t play Merion from the rough. I won’t be preaching a great deal to them, but I will certainly educate them to the fact and they will learn pretty quickly that you can’t be competitive from the rough at Merion. We are going to do everything we can to keep the ball in the fairway first. From there, I think they will be fine.
From your playing experiences and your first stint as captain, what can you expect in terms of crowd support?
Marucci: I think it’s really nice for these young men to play in front of as many people as possible. Bigger crowds do add to the event. You know it’s an event of a lifetime. You don’t forget those things. I think that opportunity is here. I’m hopeful we will stir up enough interest and we will get a lot of people out here.
Virtually every Walker Cup member I’ve talked to has said the nerves on the first tee are nothing like they’ve ever experienced before in golf. How would you describe it?
Marucci: I think it is extremely difficult to play. First of all you’re representing your country. This is one of a few opportunities where they are not playing as individuals. They are playing for their team. I can remember standing next to Tiger Woods when we lost at [Royal] Porthcawl [in 1995] and he turned to me, and this was only 10 days after we had played in the [U.S. Amateur] final at Newport [Country Club], and said, "I don’t mind if I lose for myself. But I can’t stand losing for anybody else." There is a tremendous amount of pressure to perform for your teammates.
Besides the golf, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance that surrounds the event, from attending dinners to witnessing the emotional flag-raising ceremony. How does that affect the team’s performance?
Marucci: It will be different in this country. Over there, we played at three different venues prior to going to County Down. There were many people out there watching them. They were trying to get comfortable with that. There won’t be a much of that here. It’s pretty low key. When the flags go up, they get a little bit [emotional]. It’s kind of like a football game when you get hit that first time.
Some of the game’s greatest players are Walker Cup alums, from Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bob Jones for the USA, to Padraig Harrington, Paul Casey and Luke Donald for GB&I. Do you see the 2009 Walker Cup as a chance for golf fans to see the future of the game?
Marucci: Matches provide that opportunity. We had the [U.S.] Amateur [here in 2005], but that’s a little bigger field. This is international, which gives people a chance to see people they don’t normally get to see in the States. From that standpoint, it certainly is unique.