Even a nation of individualists such as the U.S., with amateur golfers who dominated singles play Saturday afternoon, needs teamwork. American Walker Cup players said they would not have done so well in solo matches had they not finished strongly in partner golf in the morning.
The U.S. was getting pummeled in the pre-lunch alternate-shot competition before pulling out 11/2 points. "That was 11/2 more points than we were looking at," said Justin Thomas, whose dynamic shot from a fairway bunker on No. 17 helped the U.S. to its only full point in alternate-shot play.
In the afternoon, it was all America, a 61/2-11/2 drubbing that put the U.S. ahead of Great Britain and Ireland, 8-4, going into the finish Sunday at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton. The Americans need 51/2 of a possible 14 points to regain the Cup, which it lost two years ago in Scotland.
"To me, this match is even," U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve said, mindful that wild things can happen at the end of team golf -- notably the Ryder Cup collapse by American pros last year. What's more, there is no telling what the home side will get in singles Sunday from Thomas because he has a bad back. He will not play in the morning alternate shot matches.
Still, there was no denying the poise that the U.S. team showed when it appeared headed toward an early blowout. First, Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt-teammates of Thomas on the NCAA champion University of Alabama squad-gained a half-point as Whitsett made a three-foot putt on No. 18 against Nathan Kimsey and Max Orrin.
Then Thomas and Patrick Rodgers beat Gavin Moynihan and Kevin Phelan, 2 and 1, as Thomas drilled an 111-yard shot from a deep bunker to a 17th green that he could not see. "That was one of the most clutch shots I've ever seen," Rodgers said. "I'm just happy I made the putt."
For whatever reason, American golfers traditionally have done better while playing on their own, especially in the Walker Cup. This year's team burnished that reputation Saturday, taking a lead from Max Homa, the NCAA individual champion from California.
Homa, like Thomas, intends to turn pro Monday and wants to leave his amateur career with a flourish. He was especially motivated for singles after not having cracked Holtgrieve's morning lineup.
"I told myself this morning, I was going to be the best cheerleader the U.S.A. has ever seen, even better than those Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. I just tried to be positive and see the good that could come out of it," he said, adding that he felt a shift with those late 11/2 morning points.
He lit the fire after having lost the first hole to Orrin. Homa drove the green on the par-4 second and sank a 45-foot twister for eagle. He agreed with the read from his National caddie Sean Murphy of Huntington, aimed nearly 10 feet left and watched it go in. "He said it was his greatest moment on a golf course," Murphy said. "My adrenaline was pumping, too."
Adrenaline flowed throughout the roster on a basically perfect day in front of huge crowds. In Long Island's first Walker Cup in 36 years, yesterday was a reminder of what a different animal this event is, especially at the National, its birthplace.
Wyatt's caddie is former Jet Kurt Sohn ("I think they're going to be better than you think," Sohn said of the Jets). And the former leader of the free world was there, cheering. George W. Bush, great grandson of the Cup's donor, was present for a third consecutive day (the "W" stands for Walker).