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Another chance for LI to add to Walker Cup's rich history

U.S. Walker Cup players pose with the trophy

U.S. Walker Cup players pose with the trophy after winning the Walker Cup when they defeated Great Britain and Ireland at Royal County Down. Credit: AP, 2007

The last time the Walker Cup match was held on Long Island, there was some skepticism about what continent this really was. "People were asking why would the USGA bring the Walker Cup to a course that really feels like the British Isles? They thought that somehow it would give the other side an advantage," said Fred Ridley, a member of the U.S. team that played Great Britain and Ireland at Shinnecock Hills in 1977.

"But it worked out OK," said Ridley, who defeated future Masters champion Sandy Lyle twice in singles matches, helping the U.S. to a comfortable 16-8 victory.

Ridley and other alumni will be back at Shinnecock Friday, playing a match to be held in conjunction with the Walker Cup's return to Southampton, at the National Golf Links of America Saturday and Sunday.

Fact is, the Walker Cup -- golf's premier amateur team event, which spawned the Ryder Cup and other similar pro attractions -- is rekindling a long connection with Long Island. The match was born here, at the National Golf Links in 1922. And besides playing host in 1977, the Island has sent some of its favorite sons to compete: Port Washington's George Burns in 1975, Jericho's Len Mattiace in 1987 and West Sayville's Ralph Howe III in 1989.

This time, there is no doubt which side will have the home- course advantage. But, just as in 1977, there is a strong feeling that the East End is not your typical American golf venue. Ridley, who has played National many times, said, "I think it's terrific, just a classic."

Maybe golf followers will reflect fondly on it 36 years from now. The 1977 Walker Cup was filled with portent. It was the first of nine Walker Cup appearances for Jay Sigel, who said recently he was so pumped up he hit his 140-yard wedge shot on No. 1 way over the green. The event was a precursor for Scott Simpson, who went on to win the 1987 U.S. Open.

Mostly, it was a launching pad for the reputation of Shinnecock Hills. "I think the USGA always thought it was a wonderful venue," said Ridley, who went on to become a member of the USGA's executive committee and now is director of competition at the Masters (he made the ruling on Tiger Woods' illegal drop this year).

"On the other end of the spectrum, it was a very well received experience from the standpoint of the club and opened up discussions of maybe doing something bigger. Only nine years later, it held the U.S. Open," he said.

Ridley was captain of the 1989 U.S. team in Atlanta. That squad was the first to lose on home soil and the first to have two lefthanded players. One of them was Howe, the Long Islander who won the U.S. Public Links. The other was Phil Mickelson.

Howe said this week from China, where he is a golf instructor, that Ridley had talked about teaming the two lefties in alternate shot format. He recalls practicing with Mickelson against teammates Robert Gamez and Doug Martin and losing. The cost of the bet was having to bow to the winners.

"As I recall, Phil wasn't too happy about that," Howe said, adding that the lefties were not paired in competition, "because one of us wasn't playing well that week, and it wasn't him."

Despite his singles loss to Eoghan O'Connell, Howe still considers the Walker Cup one of the highlights of his life in golf. He never will forget the feeling, when the emcee said, "Next on the tee, representing the United States of America: Ralph Howe."

"Well, I almost collapsed," he said. "I actually forgot how to breathe. Somehow, I managed to hit a draw to the right side of the fairway."

Tickets available. The USGA said that tickets still are available at Spectators are allowed to walk in fairways with the golfers.

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