ST. LOUIS – A little more than four years ago, Walker Cup captain Jim Holtgrieve lobbied for the inclusion of mid-amateurs in the event. Future USGA president Tom O’Toole Jr., who caddied for Holtgrieve when he won the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at St. Louis’ Bellerive Country Club in 1981, believed in the cause.
It wasn’t about St. Louis ties, friendships, favors or politics. It was about the spirit of amateur golf, the intentions of George Herbert Walker when he initiated the competition, which began in 1922. In January 2013, the USGA announced a minimum of two mid-amateurs (players 25 or older) would be part of the 10-member squad to compete against Great Britain and Ireland.
“George Herbert Walker’s original intent was to have a competition that fostered international goodwill between the USGA and the R&A,” said O’Toole, USGA vice president and championship committee chairman at the time. He would become president a little more than a year later.
“Mid-amateurs, who are seasoned players, are likely to bring a unique perspective to a team and demonstrate, as well as appreciate, the characteristics of leadership and generosity of spirit that are central to the Walker Cup,” O’Toole said.
Four years and two Walker Cups later, that spirit appears to be waning. O’Toole’s presidency has given way to Diana Murphy. The captaincy now resides with Spider Miller. And the hard commitment to include mid-amateurs has softened ahead of the 2017 Walker Cup on Sept. 9-10at Los Angeles Country Club.
As first reported by Jim Nugent in Global Golf Post, the USGA will consider saving a spot for one mid-amateur, leaving open its options for future matches in the biennial series. Miller recently acknowledged as much to golfchannel.com, adding: “But given the level of play and how good the mid-amateur pool is, I expect there will be two on this team.”
In short, it’s no longer about Walker’s intentions; it’s about winning. It’s not about conducting an amateur competition; it’s a college all-star game and a PGA Tour prospects league. It’s not about international goodwill; it’s about pounding American chests.
St. Louis native Skip Berkmeyer has been one of the top mid-ams in the country for many years. Berkmeyer, 43, has played in 30 USGA championships, including nine U.S. Amateurs. He doesn’t consider himself a serious candidate to play in a Walker Cup, but he considers the inclusion of mid-ams to be essential.
“It doesn’t impact me, per se, but it affects mid-amateur golf,” Berkmeyer said. “I think the sentiment of having them on the team is the right one. It’s what the founders wanted, what the championship is all about.”
Berkmeyer also compared the Walker Cup situation with the recent demise of the USGA State Team Championship.
“It’s another slap in the face to mid-amateur golf,” Berkmeyer said. “So it’s like they’re taking their prime constituents, the ones that preach their message, that go back to their clubs and talk about why you should have handicaps and participate, and kind of kicking them when they’re down.”
In 2013, Holtgrieve’s team won, 17-9, at National Golf Links on Long Island, N.Y. The two mid-ams fared well. Todd White earned the point that clinched a tie, and Nathan Smith scored the winning point.
“If you could have seen their faces,” Holtgrieve said. “Todd White is a high school teacher, and he was so pumped up about the Walker Cup team. . . . He went back to Spartanburg, S.C., and told all his students, all the people around him, what an honor it was to play for his country, and how much it meant to him.”
The mid-am results were not impressive in 2015. Under Miller’s watch, the U.S. lost, 16½-9½, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England. Mid-ams Scott Harvey and Mike McCoy combined for just one point. That said, collegians Maverick McNealy, 19, Lee McCoy, 21, and Jordan Niebrugge, 22, combined for one point, as well. Fortunes of golf know no age boundaries.
Holtgrieve has heard the rumors, read the stories and spoken with parties in the know. He senses the USGA shift in policy is inevitable.
“It’s really disappointing,” Holtgrieve said. “That’s not what George Herbert Walker wanted. If you read the history … it’s right there, talking about why he started it. This is not the Ryder Cup. Everybody likes to win, but that shouldn’t be the bottom line. This is about relationships.
“These college kids – and it’s nothing against them; I had some great kids – but in the big picture, they use it as a steppingstone to professional golf. They don’t understand all of that. And that’s not what George Herbert Walker wanted.”
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD