News & Opinion

Walker Cup alternates show value of expanded rosters

Alternate Mac Meissner with Ricky Castillo at 2021 Walker Cup
Mac Meissner (left), an alternate for the Americans, joins Ricky Castillo to win a point for the U.S. in Saturday morning foursomes of the Walker Cup at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla.

With COVID-19 a concern, 2 alternates were added to each team, but there should be room for further expansion of biennial matches

JUNO BEACH, Fla. – I have been critical of the USGA in the past on numerous issues, but when its leaders make the right call, then proper credit is due.

Last week at the 48th Walker Cup, the competition of some of the best amateurs in the world was marred by a stomach bug that hit 70 percent of the players on the U.S. and Great Britain and Ireland teams. The illnesses made holding the two-day competition extremely difficult.

If not for each team’s two alternates, who were available to fill in and even participated at Seminole Golf Club, some of the matches likely would have been forfeited or, at the least, play would have been diminished because of fatigue.

Alternates had not been part of the Walker Cup experience, at least not onsite, as each team typically traveled with 10 players.

In 2021, the R&A and USGA agreed that carrying two alternates on both teams would be a prudent decision in the era of COVID-19. Thankfully, the pandemic was not an issue, other than to limit attendance to about 2,000 per day, but the stomach bug was a factor. Illness facilitated the use of alternates in Saturday morning’s foursomes.

Mac Meissner, an SMU senior and the first alternate for the Americans, teamed with Ricky Castillo to post a 2-up victory against Jack Dyer and Matty Lamb in Saturday’s morning foursome. GB&I also benefited from the availability of an alternate as Jake Bolton teamed with Angus Flanagan for a 1-up victory against Stewart Hagestad and William Mouw in the morning’s final foursomes match. (For scoring, click here.)

Though alternate players were not needed in the 47 previous editions of the Walker Cup, developments this year prompt the question, will substitute players be included in future matches?

“I'd love to see it go to 12 players – a couple [of] alternates and three days,” U.S. captain Nathanial Crosby said on Saturday night after his team had taken a 7-5 lead. “The guys fight so hard to get here; it takes two years. But that's my opinion, and I'm sure that there's a dogfight back in some conference room that I'm not invited to on that.”

Historically, the R&A and USGA have been reluctant to make any changes to the Walker Cup format. The matches started in 1922 with eight participants on each side, and the squad sizes varied from eight to 10 in the early years. By 1950, the 10-man teams had become standard.

“I think probably history tells us that it's not regularly kind of required from year on year,” GB&I captain Stuart Wilson said of the need for alternates. “I'm not so sure we really need traveling reserves in a regular year. “The 10-man squad is quite good as it is, because you've kind of got natural two reserves naturally for the first three sessions as it is,” he said, alluding to four matches involving eight players from each side that compose the first team sessions. “I would probably just revert back once all this COVID protection is past us.”

It’s hard to understand Wilson’s reluctance, but change in the Walker Cup comes hard.

R&A officials have been adamant that they are unwilling to extend the competition an extra day, similar to what the Curtis Cup women’s amateur matches did in 2008. The R&A wants to keep the two-day.

For the participants, competing in the Walker Cup is a thrill. They want to play as much as possible, because in many cases, the match is the crowning achievement of their amateur careers.

Though an extension of the matches to three days is not part of this discussion, it shows the reluctance by both governing bodies regarding change for the Walker Cup.

The need for additional players clearly was borne out this week. Even if they had not been required, how is the competition diminished or degraded to expand the teams from 10 to 12 players?

You can look at this year as being a one-off in this limited situation. Or, perhaps the governing bodies have been fortunate for the past 47 editions and it might not be a good idea not to push that luck.

It’s not as if there is a shortage of quality or deserving talent on either side of the Atlantic. Expanding the teams would create four more ambassadors for amateur golf.

Thankfully, the R&A and USGA were proactive this time. They reportedly are looking into expanding the rosters, but change comes hard with the Walker Cup.

Hopefully, when the Walker Cup returns to St. Andrews’ Old Course in Scotland in 2023, the teams will be 12 strong, but don’t count on it. 

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