The Walker Cup at the National Golf Links proved golf is at its best when it hews closely to its Scottish roots

September 10, 2013

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — What a bunch of majors this year-all five of them!

You remember April, elegant Adam Scott winning in the gloaming at Augusta, even if his win was almost overshadowed by that one-off Golf Channel reality show, “Saturday Morning Rules Symposium with Tiger and Fred.” Justin Rose’s win at Merion was rock-solid although the soggy rough and Phil’s wedge play seared your memory, too. The British Open at Muirfield was one for the ages, with Mickelson smack-pop-bamming his way in. Then came the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, in the great golf town of Rochester, Jason Dufner and his killer irons carrying the day.

And then came the best of them all: the Walker Cup at the National Golf Links of America, concluding on Sunday with a resounding American win over GB&I, 17-9. My favorite event of the year, even if, as a competition, it was never anything like white-knuckle scary.

What it was was throw-back cool, a bunch of teenagers and twentysomethings, and old Nathan Smith, playing in the wind, on firm turf twinged with brown, on a course that has barely changed since Bob Jones and Bernard Darwin and their tweedy friends played in the first Walker Cup in 1922. Their 2013 descendants, at times and in places, were flummoxed by the course’s odd challenges.

The 20 golfing gents assembled here hit some drivers when they should have been hitting 6-irons and vice-versa. They chipped with the wrong clubs to the wrong places. They didn’t read the wind correctly on some of their downhill putts. And this was with the benefit of savvy NGL caddies. All in all, just fabulous, for the players on the course and the hikers in their wake. (It’s a hilly course.)

The two-day team event was another powerful reminder that the game, despite the equipment and swing-technique revolution, hasn’t really changed. There are many more players today who can hit a 5-iron 240 yards and straight up into the air than there has ever been. But that’s nothing but a starting point.

Golf has always been and will always be a cross-country game rooted in getting a ball in a distant hole, and what the National course does is demand a golfer apply his mind, in good times and in bad, to the problems at hand. That’s what it’s all about.

The U.S. Open at Merion offered the same lesson, but there the course underwent a massive tailoring job as a counterbalance to all that gym work and all the sparky titanium heads. She held up well, but the 2013 Merion was really a cousin to the course Lee Trevino fell in love with in 1971. The Walker Cup at the National was different. The guys played the course pretty much as it’s always been. Golf finally found something that didn’t need the stamp of new-and-improved. Hallelujah.

The Walker Cup is a match-play event, which allows the course set-up people to breathe far more easily. Whoever runs your course should take note: Is virtually all of the competitive golf played at your place played at match play? THEN WHY ARE YOU SO WORRIED ABOUT HOW HARD THE COURSE IS?

Excuse me. I didn’t mean to get so emotional. But there are some really heinous things going on in the game, and the Walker Cup — really, the course on which it was played — was such an overwhelming reminder of what the game has been and what it can be.

So many architects will come to an old-timey course looking for renovation work, say all manner of worshipful things about Thomas or Tillinghast or Mackenzie, retrieve all the old photos in an attempt to replicate every last slope and bunker. But then they kill all their good intentions by using every modern trick to grow thick, green lush grass here and there and everywhere. The National, the crowning genius of Charles Blair Macdonald and his engineer/wingman Seth Raynor, has more money than God. The club’s motto is less water, more lobster.

Yes, the National is a spectacular course, on a brackish bay, windswept, uber-exclusive, breathtaking, sui generis. That’s not the point. The point is the course opened its doors to the world last week — just as Pine Valley will do on the afternoon of Sept. 29, for the finale of the Crump Cup — to the public and we could all see that the game, even the American version of the game, is at its best when it hews closely to its Scottish roots. And that means working with Mother Nature, not manipulating her.

I felt a certain golf-induced ecstasy from the moment I got on campus on Saturday, in part because the event was so sublimely unfussy. I parked near the course, walked onto it without being frisked and roamed around undisturbed. Big greens with comical slopes. Tiny tee boxes. Coffin-shaped bunkers filled with rocky beach sand. OMG. You likely have seen the snaps. Golf porn.

The crowds were tiny (but enthusiastic). F. Scott himself would have had a field day at the thing, so exquisite was the commingling of old and new money. (Gatsby on Daisy Buchanan: “Her voice is full of money.”)

The National borders, famously, Shinnecock Hills. (A truly great course, but crazy hard.) It also borders the Tom Doak-Jack Nicklaus collaboration (or do I have that order wrong?) called Sebonack Golf Club, where Inbee Park won the women’s U.S. Open in June, the third leg of her valiant attempt to win the Grand Slam. It came to an end in August at the women’s British Open at the Old Course. Evian, shmevian.

Sebonack, a billionaires' hangout where your better yellow Ferraris would feel right at home, is as beautiful as a course could be. It was the brainchild of a self-made entrepreneur named Michael Pascucci, and you would have to be a really, really bad golf snob to dis the place, but you know how some golf people are.

The negotiations between Pascucci’s people and the USGA people, to make the Sebonack driving range and various other parcels of Sebonack real estate available to both the U.S. and the GB&I teams, would be worthy of a modern-day Edith Wharton novel. A comedy of manners.

We, the windswept unwashed, were not bothered with such things. What made the Walker Cup such fun was that it was not hyped, it was not commercialized, it was not remotely crowded. It was so pure. You felt free, being abroad on those links. The kids on the course had beautiful unencumbered swings, and some of them (without the approval of their dermatologists) played hatless. There was nothing to sell.

I first came to National in 1977, as a caddie, a middle-class, golf-loving kid from down the street (30 miles) who was drawn to the place by its name alone. The National Golf Links of America. Work was available but gas was expensive and my loops there were few. Still, the experiences are seared in my mind. I’d never seen such broad fairways, brown and tumbling in the summer heat. Or such greens. Or such men. It was men only in those days, old Wall Street wealth, a temple of High WASP, a place where manners mattered and voices were hushed. I recall one boss was an E.F. Hutton man. Not that I knew anything about E.F. Hutton, beyond the ads. It was appealing. I played my own golf at the village-owned course in Bellport. It’s a dead-flat, not-too-hard, bay-front Seth Raynor course where anybody can have a good time. I played it Sunday morning, lost no balls, made some pars, fell in love all over again. I’m a sucker for salty air.

For a magazine piece that I reported 27 years ago, I called various people and asked them about the National. Herbert Warren Wind said, “It’s America’s first great golf course.” George Plimpton said, “It’s an impossibly difficult course.” Ben Crenshaw said, “It’s my favorite course in the world.” Nelson Doubleday, co-owner of my beloved New York Mets and a member, said, “It’s a private course and it’s none of your damned business.”

All that holds up beautifully. But for a few days in September, National opened her gates and let us in. (Thank you.) What a chance, to see our game anew, in all its magnificence. With the exception of British Opens at the Old Course, I have never covered a golf event on any course, anywhere, anytime, that gave me more of an itch to play. Sunday morning at Bellport, I could hardly breathe.

You take what you want from this Walker Cup. This is what I’m taking. Less water. More brown. Wider fairways. Shorter holes. More fun. More match play. Less talk. More walking. More wind. More salty air.

Thank you for your time.