Why has it felt like a million years since the last Walker Cup? I don’t know, but we’re back.
Two years later, ‘21 has already produced some of the biggest rising stars in men’s professional golf: Pierceson Coody, Alex Fitzpatrick and Ricky Castillo have all already picked up wins in their careers. But it’s time to welcome a new generation into one of the oldest traditions in amateur golf at the mecca of golf itself.
The Walker Cup returns to the Old Course for the first time in nearly 50 years. A lot has changed about amateur golf since then – between the ball flying farther and faster, golfers looking like they could play various sports and the fact that those college kids can actually pocket some cash before they turn pro.
We’re not going that far back in time today. Let’s get up to speed on the best players in amateur golf, what they’ve been up to, and what their chances look like in the biennial battle of the best (or not)?
1. Where’s Thor?
Hanging around the top of the WAGR rankings for what’s felt like ages, Michael Thorbjornsen announced his thunderous presence on the amateur golf scene when he won the U.S. Junior in 2018. He’s continued to roar in enormous moments, including the 2021 Western Amateur, a fourth place at the 2022, Traveler’s Championship and plenty of success as a core piece of the Stanford Cardinal.
The second-best player in the world was a no-brainer for Team USA, and locked up an automatic selection two months before the Americans were set to embark on St. Andrews – until a stress fracture emerged after the Western Amateur, forcing him to withdraw from his final U.S. Amateur and only Walker Cup.
2. Who is really the best player in the world? (Sargent vs. Dunlap?)
There’s been a ton of fanfare around Gordon Sargent – and rightfully so! The No. 1 player in the world is a force in the college golf scene, and his breakneck ball speeds in the 190s have taken over. Being within arm’s length of a PGA Tour card by your junior of college is pretty impressive, too (thanks to a bevy of honors and accomplishments rewarded by PGA Tour U Accelerated).
But other than three pro starts (including low amateur at the U.S. Open) and an early match play exit at the U.S. Amateur, we haven’t seen a ton of the best player in the world. Instead, a new threat has emerged in Nick Dunlap, the entire reason Sargent was knocked out of the U.S. Amateur. After struggling with tendonitis during his freshman year at Alabama, the rising sophomore has been indisputably the player to beat all summer. Wins at the Northeast Amateur, North & South Amateur, and a quarterfinalist run at the Western Amateur all preceded his ultimate victory at the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills. On top of that, Dunlap became the only player besides Tiger Woods to win both a U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur title.
If you’re looking at it through a recency lens, there’s no reason Dunlap shouldn’t be the de facto leader of the Walker Cup squad – even if he’s among the youngest. Cherry Hills proved the overall completeness of Dunlap’s game – between distance, course management, putting and scrambling all lay the foundation for what could be an incredible career.
“I think I’m a smart player,” Dunlap said, just ahead of his victory at Cherry Hills. “I think I’m able to navigate my way around a golf course better than some people and I think that’s what helps me play better.”
Pretty hard to argue against a match-play king.
3. Carolina Blue takeover
The Jordan crew leads the collegiate representation of the Walker Cup. Headlined by David Ford, Dylan Menante and Austin Greaser, the Tarheels were one of the best teams in the entire country in the 2022-23 season, winning five team titles on the season and made a run to the semifinals in the NCAAs – so these guys know a thing or two about match play. Individually, Menante was a semifinalist at the 2022 U.S. Amateur, Ford made it to the Round of 16 in 2023 and Greaser was a finalist at the 2021 U.S. Amateur and winner of the 2022 Western Amateur.
Outside of injury concerns with Austin Greaser, who says he has struggled with a hand injury for two years and opted not to get hand surgery this summer, expect to see this trio popping up in a lot of matchups.
4. Who are these guys?
It’s okay if you’re looking at these Walker Cup teams and wondering who some of these guys are. Unless you’ve been laser-focused on the amateur scene, outside of Dunlap, Sargent, Greaser, Summerhays and Hagestad, few have really broken into the mainstream conversation.
Hopefully, you’ll allow them to introduce themselves as a sneaky good group who have been on the cusp of greatness for quite some time. Captain Mike McCoy chose wisely: in the mix are Outstanding Freshman Award winners (Ben James, Nick Gabrelcik) and a U.S. Junior finalist (Surratt). On the GB&I side, reigning U.S. Mid-Am champion Matthew McClean and international rising stars in John Gough and Barclay Brown don captain Stuart Wilson's lineup.
5. Abolish GB&I
Look, I tried to make a case for GB&I as it pertained to the 2022 Curtis Cup, and they got cooked. I know that’s a different competition, but there’s a scary amount of overlap in the success of the GB&I squads pre, during, and post-Cups. All-time records favor Team USA in both events: 38-9-1 in the Walker Cup, and 31-8-3 in the Curtis Cup.
I keep coming back to the fact that we’ve evolved past the need for GB&I. First of all, if the Ryder Cup/Solheim Cup can Team Europe, uh, so should the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup. There’s a world of opportunity for creating some long-standing lore, rivalries, drama – all the things professional golf often lacks if it isn’t, uh, an existential crisis.
Simply put: There’s too much talent outside of the GB&I pool to neglect the rest of the continent. No doubt, the United States is absolutely saturating the top of WAGR. But it isn’t a fair fight when you’re asking players in the 100s to play against an assembly of some of the best 10 players in the entire world. Please, please, stop this madness.
6. Young men, there’s no need to get down: Examining GB&I’s legitimacy
That being said, I do think there’s still a case to be made for the GB&I squad. Stick with me.
One of the youngest players ever selected to either team makes his Walker Cup debut this year. 17-year-old Connor Graham from Scotland will be suiting it up at St. Andrews. His record playing Scottish golf has some serious legitimacy to it! He won the Scottish Men’s Open and finished 5th at the Scottish Men’s Amateur Championship.
Fear not – I’m not putting all of my GB&I stock into a teenager. I like their chances on the experience side – in personnel and “home continent” advantage. Even though Team USA has patriarch Mid-Am Stewart Hagestad to lean on, two-time players like Barclay Brown and Mark Power are likely itching to get one back on Team USA, after GB&I fell 14-12 in a close one at Seminole.
The Old Course is the perfect place to do it. For once, history is on GB&I’s side: their all-time record at St. Andrews is 2-1. Sure it’s been nearly 50 years, but it’s about time Team USA’s winning streak be broken!
Or, you know, they could assemble a long overdue Team Europe. Might be worth a shot.