LOS ANGELES – Outclassed and outmanned against a game GB&I team at Royal Lytham, America’s top amateurs struggled mightily in the most recent Walker Cup.
The resounding 16½-9½ defeat in 2015 was the worst setback by a U.S. team in the 93-year history of the Walker Cup. The post-mortem to understand why the U.S. lost proved simple: foursomes.
The format, in which American teams often struggle, also is known as alternate shot: one player tees off, the other golfer hits the next shot, etc., until the ball is holed.
Americans Doc Redman (from left), Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler and Braden Thornberry work on their short games at Los Angeles Country Club, site of this weekend’s Walker Cup.
In eight foursomes matches in 2015, the U.S. won two and lost six.
“I have thought a lot about it and talked to various players, and the only thing we came up with is that the only thing we do different and we're not used to is caucusing over a shot,” said U.S. captain Spider Miller, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who led the ’15 squad. “So, if these two are partners,” said Miller, pointing to two of his players, “they're used to, for their tee shot, they would normally go back, stay in their own thoughts, and they would hit the shot the way they saw it.”
This weekend at Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, site of the 46th Walker Cup (facts: http://bit.ly/2vMmqxF), Miller wants his golfers to play as if they didn’t have a partner. Whatever shot they see, play that shot. Don’t be persuaded to do something that feels uncomfortable.
If a player sees a certain shot shape off the tee, hit it, even if his partner might prefer that the ball be on the other side of the fairway. To facilitate that strategy, only the player hitting the tee shot will go to the tee. His partner will wait down the fairway to hit the next shot.
Is that the answer? Miller and his only returning player from 2015, Maverick McNealy, likely took the loss the hardest and also might be in the best position to create a different outcome this weekend
Both agree that the approach could be the difference.
“It's a question of whether you try and match their skills or match their personalities,” Miller said of how best to pair his foursomes teams. “Quite frankly, I'm not with them enough or have gotten to see them enough, so even if I did know more about their play, I would not do that. I would pair them by personality. So, the way we did it is they privately submitted their choice to play, one through three.”
Most of the Americans said they would play with anyone, but that answer didn’t satisfy Miller. He insisted that they choose, ultimately getting them to buy into the team concept at every level.
Playing in front of a home crowd versus a foreign crowd historically has benefited the Americans, who have lost only twice in the U.S. in a biennial series that dates to 1922. The U.S. leads overall, 35-9-1, but GB&I has won two of the past three matches.
LACC’s North Course, a 1921 George C. Thomas design, differs from Lytham. The warm, placid conditions of southern California contrast sharply with the windy and cool climate of Lytham, England, on the Irish Sea.
“I don't know how you figure it,” Miller said of how poorly most of his golfers played Lytham. “Some of the guys struggled with the green speeds, and it was a long course. The other thing that I think they have, on that particular course, an inherent advantage because they all play in the Lytham Trophy. That's their big amateur event, and they have all had practice and competitive rounds on that golf course. It's a hard golf course. It was long, too; hard and long.”
With LACC being new to players on both sides, any home-course advantage that the U.S. normally might expect has been eliminated.
But beware of a wounded captain. Miller will end his role as player or captain in amateur golf this weekend, and his players want to send him off with a victory. If the Americans can at least break even in foursomes each morning, they would enter the afternoon singles with history on their side. In the three Walker Cups before Lytham, the U.S. swept the singles sessions by a combined 34½-19½ score.
“All 10 of us were selected because we're incredibly competitive,” said Doug Ghim, the runner-up in last month’s U.S. Amateur. “I don't think any one of us likes to lose, whether it's a nine-hole putting contest or if it's an 18-hole match.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli