The International Match for the Walker Cup, in which the eight leading amateur golfers from the United States compete against their counterparts from Great Britain and Ireland, has been justifiably acclaimed as the premiere event in amateur golf since it was first played in 1922. Certainly, it is the international sporting competition that is the most steeped in tradition and prestige aside from the Olympic games.
Last month, the 26th Walker Cup Match was held at the oldest 18-hole course in America--the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southhampton, Long Island. The match began to the skree of a bagpipe regiment marching down the first fairway playing "Scotland the Brave" and ended with the American team continuing its traditional dominance of the competition by defeating the British contingent 16-8.
Despite the one-sidedness of the final results, both teams have maintained their respective esprit de corps through the years, and for the visiting squad the match is nothing short of a golfing crusade. At the same time the Walker Cup Match has been essential in fostering the spirit of comraderie that exists between golfers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The match in large part owes its success to the efforts of its namesake--George Herbert Walker. At a meeting on December 21, 1920, Walker, who was then serving as president of the United States Golf Association, offered to donate an International Challenge Trophy. The press referred to the trophy as the "Walker Cup" and the name stuck.
Walker grandiosely envisioned a match between teams from several nations and in 1921 the United States Golf Association went so far as to invite any country which could field a team to participate in the competition. There were no takers at the time, but in 1922, just one year later, Britain sent over a squad to compete for the Walker Cup at Walker's home club, The National Golf Links of America. The National is a sister club bordering Shinnecock Hills, the site of this year's match.
The American team won that inaugural encounter 8-4 and by the time the next match was held back in Scotland at St. Andrews, the Walker Cup competition had burgeoned into a keen transatlantic rivalry. In 1924, it was formally decided to hold the match biennially in alternate countries.
Through the years the Walker Cup has managed to maintain the spirit of gentlemanly integrity and unconcealed exuberance associated with amateur golf since the heyday of Bobby Jones. Despite the tremendous popularity now enjoyed by the leading pros, the Walker Cup continues to be a more appealing event than its professional counterpart, the Ryder Cup.
Perhaps the greater appeal of the Walker Cup is that the amateurs have preserved a patriotic ardor. This is especially true of the British side. Having won only two out of the 26 Walker Cup Matches, the undaunted British have countless times striven to field a team with that special winning chemistry. Despite many near misses, they have achieved success only in 1938 and 1971.
The Walker Cup, and American golf in general, can trace its roots back to an incident that took place at the French Riviera resort of Biarritz in the winter of 1890-91. William K. Vanderbilt, the son of "Commodore" Vanderbilt who had founded the family fortune, was journeying through the south of France on his Grand Tour when he stumbled upon a Scottish professional named Willie Dunn giving a golfing exhibition. Dunn had every right to be proud of his own blood lines, as his father, "Old Willie" Dunn, had finished second in the very first British Open.
Soon after that landmark encounter, Duncan Cryder, who had been a member of Vanderbilt's party, sounded out another Southampton resident named Samuel Parrish, who was then vacationing in Italy, about the possibility of introducing golf in Southampton. Parrish hurriedly arranged for Willie Dunn to get a passage on a steamship so he could come to Southampton and begin building a golf course at once.
Vanderbilt, who moved with more than a little panache through the sporting set, watched Dunn hit a few shots and then turned to the members of his entourage to pass judgment on the newly discovered game. "Gentlemen," he said, "this beats rifle shooting for distance and accuracy. It is a game I think would go in our country."
Parrish accompanied Dunn in surveying the land for the most suitable stretch on which to play golf. Parrish later recorded his adventures with Dunn, writing, "Dunn teed up a ball and handed me a driver. By some fortunate dispensation of Providence, I happened to make a drive--all too frequently failing since of repetition in my 32 years of golf--and the ball went sailing over the embankment of the railroad track...this then having been the first ball ever struck on the Shinnecock Hills. It is needless to recall here the experience of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of American golfers since 1891 when I say that I at once became a convert to, and a devoted follower of, the game."
Dunn eventually settled on a wilderness of weatherbeaten dune overlooking Great Peconic Bay and laid out the first 18-hole gold course in America. Dunn hired a crew of 150 Shinnecock Indians from the nearby reservation and began construction on Shinnecock Hills in the summer of 1891.
Dunn later described the painstaking work that went into fashioning the links, saying: "Except for several horse-drawn roadscrapers all the work was done by hand. The fairways were cleaned off and the natural grass left in. The rough was very rough with clothes-ripping blueberry bushes, large boulders and many small gullies. The place was dotted with Indian burial mounds and many sandtraps."
Over the years, the unkempt swathe of land also served as a favorite dumping ground for whiskey bottles. Dunn recalled, "One never knew when an explosion shot in a trap would bring out a couple of firewater flasks, or perhaps a bone or two."
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