By Ron Balicki, Golfweek
The last time a U.S. Walker Cup team had more than one mid-amateur was 2003, when Trip Kuehne and George Zahringer were among the 10 players selected for the biennial matches.
In 2005, for the first time, there were no mid-ams – players 25 or older – representing the American side against Great Britain & Ireland. In each of the past three events, only one mid-amateur played for the U.S.
That U.S. trend will change this year when the 44th Walker Cup takes place Sept. 7-8 at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., site of the inaugural matches, in 1922.
The USGA announced Jan. 14 that a minimum of two mid-amateur players will be a part of the 2013 U.S. team that will attempt to regain possession of the Walker Cup following GB&I’s 14-12 victory in 2011 at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Scotland.
“This is something we’ve been talking about for a number of years and something we feel will be a win-win situation for not only the Walker Cup, but for amateur golf,” said USGA vice president Tom O’Toole, chairman of the Championship Committee. “The mid-amateurs are a key part of the game, and they bring a lot of maturity and leadership to the table. We feel that this definitely falls in step with George Herbert Walker’s original intent for these matches when he proposed them in 1921 – to foster international goodwill between the U.S. and Great Britain & Ireland and to build relationships among players on both sides.”
No doubt there will be those who will say by doing this, it hurts the U.S. chances for winning and possibly a deserving younger player may end up getting left out of the mix.
“Of course everyone wants to win,” O’Toole said, “but the Walker Cup is not just about winning. It’s about what these matches were formulated for, to build relationships and camaraderie. We feel having mid-amateurs on the team enhances the competition.
“Sure, you want to have your top players on the team, but this is about what is the best complexion of players who will best represent our country and our organization.”
Jim Holtgrieve, a three-time Walker Cup participant who captained the U.S. team in 2011 and will do so again this year, echoes that sentiment.
“This was something I was going to approach the USGA about after my captainship for them to look at,” Holtgrieve said. “I think this is all positive, and I’m very happy about it. It means so much to a mid-am to be on a Walker Cup team, and that’s what it’s all about.
“Everyone wants to win, but it’s also about what Mr. Walker had in mind to begin with,” Holtgrieve said. “It’s about goodwill and building relationships and providing these young men with an experience of a lifetime.”
Obviously, this was welcome news within mid-amateur circles. Holtgrieve said he had heard from a number of mid-ams who plan on changing their summer schedules in hopes of making the team.
“There are going to be positives and negatives on both sides, but overall I think it’s great,” said Nathan Smith, a four-time and defending U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and member of the past two U.S. Walker Cup teams. “This puts a little carrot out there to make them (mid-ams) want to play. I think it really gives them more incentive and feel it brings a lot of life back to the amateur game.”
Said Trip Kuehne, a two-time Walker Cupper and the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur winner, “When I heard about this, it put a smile on my face. I think it’s great. I think one of the reasons we’ve seen a bit of a drop-off in mid-amateur golf is because those guys didn’t have a very good chance of making the team. And don’t forget, it’s still hard for them to play the kind of schedule the young guys play, what with full-time jobs, raising families and all that.
“The Walker Cup is a very special event and, yes, you do want to have your best players playing,” Kuehne said. “But the Walker Cup is more than that, and I think the mid-ams help bring that out.”
Tim Jackson has long been one of America’s leading players, especially in the mid-amateur ranks. He won the U.S. Mid-Am twice and is a two-time Walker Cup participant.
“From a selfish standpoint, I wish they did this 10 years ago,” Jackson said with a laugh. “But seriously, I’m glad to see the USGA do this. I feel it will put a lot of incentive back within the mid-ams, and let’s face it: These are the guys who truly support amateur golf.
“I think it’s got to be positive for mid-amateurs,” Jackson said. “I’m just not sure if I would have been bold enough to say we’re going to give X number of spots for a certain class of golfers. But I applaud the USGA decision. I mean, if you look at some of the past Walker Cups, I don’t believe the mid-ams hurt any of those teams.”
Last month, the USGA held a Walker Cup practice session in Florida in which it invited 12 players to attend. Two of those were mid-ams: Smith and Todd White, a schoolteacher from Hilton Head Island, S.C.
“I’m obviously happy with the decision and I feel it will go a long way in promoting amateur golf,” White said. “There’s a lot of very good mid-amateurs out there, so now for all of us, this is going to be a big year.”
Current PGA Tour standout Rickie Fowler played on two winning U.S. Walker Cup teams, in 2007 and ’09 before forgoing his final two seasons at Oklahoma State and turning pro.
He had mixed feelings about the USGA’s mid-am quota.
“Actually, I’m really surprised they made this adjustment,” Fowler said. “I definitely feel like a deserving young player could get left out. I always thought the Walker Cup is meant to be the best amateurs from the U.S. against the best amateurs from GB&I. There shouldn’t be an age requirement or certain number of mid-ams that have to be on the team.”
That said, Fowler added, “If the two mid-ams are guys who have played on Walker Cups, then, yes, it could be very helpful to the team. But if you take a mid-am who is playing in his first Walker Cup, it would be the same as taking a kid right out of high school (who is) rearing to play.”
Will the R&A follow suit this year with the GB&I team? Probably not. But that decision is theirs.
“We always try to work closely with the R&A, and we made them aware of what we were going to do as far as mid-amateurs,” O’Toole said. “Whether or not they do the same thing is totally up to them. For us, we’re going to have two mid-amateurs on this year’s team.”