From the Golf Journal Archives - Informal at First

Sep 02, 2011

Eight decades ago this year, a group of U.S. players traveled to England to help start the tradition that has become the Walker Cup.

By John Fischer III

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of Golf Journal.)

The record books show the Walker Cup was first played at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., in 1922, but that’s not the beginning of the story. Another informal competition between the United States and Britain took place a year earlier in Hoylake, England. Next month’s Walker Cup Match at Sea Island, Ga., marks the 80th anniversary of that contest –and, in truth, the Walker Cup tradition.

The Walker Cup was born of two events: World War I, which dragged the U.S. into the world community, and a 1920 meeting on the rules between the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The rules trip was not successful, but George Herbert Walker, then the USGA’s president, came away with the idea of creating an international match, modeled upon tennis’s Davis Cup, to promote goodwill among countries.

In 1920, Walker convinced the USGA Executive Committee to approve a plan for the matches. He agreed to provide a prize, called the “United States Golf Association International Challenge Trophy.” The press immediately dubbed it the Walker Cup. The USGA invited all countries to compete and had high hopes of Australia, Canada, France and others sending teams. But the war had taken a great toll and no one responded.

W.C. Fownes Jr., the winner of the 1910 U.S. Amateur, decided to put together an informal team to play the British Amateur in Hoylake, at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, in May 1921, and to challenge the British golfers before the event.

The press jumped on the idea. The American Golfer and Golf Illustrated ran monthly articles on possible team members. Two-time U.S. Amateur champion Bob Gardner had taken England’s Cyril Tolley to the 37th hole in the British Amateur final in 1920; could he go? Charles (Chick) Evans, with U.S. Open and Amateur titles, and 1913 Open winner Francis Ouimet had jobs that might keep them at home. It took nine or 10 days to cross the Atlantic by ship. Then there would be two weeks of practice, the match, the British Amateur, perhaps the British Open in June and another 10 days of travel. A golfer needed an understanding boss.

Money was a concern, too. Should the USGA, which authorized the squad, pay travel expenses for the U.S. Team? In the end, the players paid their way.

Evans and Ouimet joined Fownes, along with 19-year-old rising sensation Bob Jones, Jesse Guilford, Paul Hunter, J. Wood Platt and Frederick Wright. They arrived in Liverpool on May 9. The match was scheduled for May 21, a Saturday.

Hoylake is a few miles south of Liverpool on a small peninsula. Royal Liverpool, which had already hosted four British Opens and eight British Amateurs, is relatively flat and treeless, and known for rain and high winds as the tides change. But there had been no rain for months when the U.S. Team arrived. The ball ran down the fairway, and a pitch to the putting surface would take a big hop over the green. The course was unwatered, including the greens, which was new to the visitors.

The U.S. players tried to figure a way to play the rock-hard course. One day in practice, Jones shot 71 in the morning and 80 in the afternoon. He later described Hoylake as “dried out with the turf hard and the greens like glass; they don’t water the greens over there; they believe in letting nature take its course.” Jesse Guilford suggested in jest that “topping” the ball might be the best way to get the ball to the green.

The format was foursomes in the morning and singles in the afternoon. The U.S. players had little experience with foursomes, in which teammates alternate shots. A favorite format with the British, it takes extra thought when playing a shot to consider how your partner will play the next.

Many people assumed that the upstarts from the U.S., playing under unfamiliar conditions and unfamiliar format, were in for a rough day. The British were led by Ernest Holderness, Roger Wethered and Cyril Tolley, the defending British Amateur champion. They were joined by Gordon Simpson, J.L.C. Jenkins, C.C. Aylmer, R. H. deMontmorancy and a young Scot named Tommy Armour, who was soon to make his mark.

Instead, the U.S. dominated from the start. “It was marvelous golf,” British writer George Greenwood wrote of the foursomes. “At the same time it was one of the sorriest debacles from a British standpoint I ever saw. There is little use in going into detail... except to say that Great Britain was hopelessly outplayed in each – every match had been lost.”

The U.S. took five of the eight singles matches in the afternoon for a 9-3 victory. “It was obvious that certain members of the British team were suffering from an acute attack of nerves,” said Hoylake historian Guy Farrar, “America did not play unbeatable stuff... we obligingly dug our own graves.”

It turned out to be a deep grave: The two teams officially competed for the Walker Cup beginning the next year but it wasn’t until 1938 that Great Britain and Ireland (part of Great Britain until 1921) could wrest the prize from the U.S.

The 2011 Walker Cup Match will be played Sept. 10-11 at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Aberdeen, Scotland. For more information about the championship, visit the Walker Cup section of the USGA website.

George Herbert Walker, then the USGA’s president, came away with the idea of creating an international match, modeled upon tennis’s Davis Cup, to promote goodwill among countries. (USGA Museum)