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Amateur Walker Cup competition returns to Long Island roots

Golfers make their way on a cart path

Golfers make their way on a cart path from the second tee past the course's iconic windmill near the 17th tee. (May 6, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The Walker Cup seemed like a good idea back in 1922, when the amateur golf match debuted at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton. At the time, Innis Brown wrote in American Golfer magazine that the top players were "polishing their niblicks" in preparation for an event that "promises in time to become one of the big annual contests for world team supremacy."

No one is debating that claim now that the top amateurs from the United States and Great Britain and Ireland are polishing their sleek hybrids for the Walker Cup's return to the National next Saturday and Sunday. All these years later, the course's layout is still almost exactly the same. And the trophy donated by George Herbert Walker, won 91 years ago by Americans Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans, still has a youthful sheen.

"That event, the emotion of that event, the history of it, helped me a lot moving forward. I played solid golf and I had an awesome time," said Jordan Spieth, who as an 18-year-old in 2011 became the second-youngest American (behind Roland McKenzie, 17, in 1926) to play in the Walker Cup. He tips his cap to the Cup for helping him, at 19, to become the youngest PGA Tour winner in 82 years this season.

"A lot of the guys who were on my team were guys I looked up to in junior golf," Spieth said recently. "Being considered a part of the team with them, as the best 10 amateur players in the United States, was just a big confidence booster for me even before the tournament started. When guys on my team started moving forward and winning PGA Tour events, it kind of was reassuring. It kind of told me I'm ready for it."

Jim Holtgrieve, captain of the U.S. squad that hopes to reverse the loss in Scotland two years ago, is firm in saying that the Walker Cup is not just a dress rehearsal for a pro golf career. It is a singular experience that stands on its own. But there is no argument that it is a springboard for all kinds of possibilities, and has been that way since Walker -- grandfather of U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush -- donated the trophy and organized the match to promote post-World War I golf on both sides of the Atlantic.

As Holtgrieve mentioned during the team's first practice at the National recently, the Walker Cup spawned the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup, Curtis Cup and every other kind of team match. Who knows what it has in store for the likes of England's Matt Fitzpatrick, 18, who will play next weekend for Great Britain and Ireland between having won the U.S. Amateur and beginning his freshman year at Northwestern?

Hoisting the Walker Cup has proved to be good exercise.

"While I loved the game of golf, I played all sports growing up. But I think when I made the Walker Cup team, and realized I was one of the 12 best amateur golfers in the country, it helped me along a career path in the game," said Jack Nicklaus, a member of the winning side in 1959 and 1961. "So the Walker Cup was a steppingstone, a significant steppingstone in my growth and maturation as a player. It was one that really made me feel like I was part of what was going on in the landscape of golf, rather than just a young kid growing up and trying to play the game."

The Walker Cup itself is part of the landscape of golf, and a hallowed part at that.

"You're not going to feel any more pressure than you will at the Walker Cup. There's no more pressure at the Ryder Cup," said Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion who still is proud of being part of a 1995 Walker Cup win over an American squad that included Tiger Woods. "It's one of those things. It's an achievement that you can walk away from with pride. You've ticked that box, you've done that. It's very easy to see the amount of players out here [on tour] who have played in it."

No matter who holds the cup next Sunday, there will be no surprise if someone feels the way Golf Illustrated's R.E. Porter did in his dispatch from the National Golf Links in 1922: "It introduced a calibre of golf which was a delight to see."

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