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Walker Cup Returns To Its Roots

by John Steinbreder - September 3, 2013

The Walker Cup is returning to the National Golf Links of America this week, and that only seems right. After all, it hosted the inaugural matches in 1922, just over a decade after the club’s founding by Charles Blair Macdonald, a big, blunt bloke of Scottish descent who is rightfully regarded as the father of golf in the U.S. And the links-style course he laid out there has long been considered one of the best in the world. Then, there is the history of the National, as the club is more informally known, and its role in the development of the game in the U.S., to say nothing of its relevance as a great golf retreat today.

The USGA could not have picked a better site.

The National Golf Links of America overlooks Long Islandís Peconic Bay

Golf was just catching on in America when the National opened for play in 1911. Macdonald designed it not only to pleasure members and their guests but also to elevate the sport in the New World and create something architecturally comparable here to the classical layouts of the United Kingdom. Working with his engineer, Seth Raynor, Macdonald produced a stunning out-and-back track that featured variations of the most celebrated golf hole designs in that region. Like the Alps from Prestwick, and the Redan from North Berwick. The Eden from the Old Course at St. Andrews and the Sahara from Royal St. George's. Golfers sought to play it, and delegates from clubs looking to build their own courses came to the National to consider what Macdonald had created and learn how to do it themselves. Perhaps Herbert Warren Wind said it best when he described it as America's first great golf course.

44th WALKER CUP
Sept. 7-8; Southampton, New York

U.S. TEAM
Captain Jim Holtgrieve, St. Louis, Missouri Max Homa, 22, Valencia, California Michael Kim, 20, Del Mar, California Jordan Niebrugge, 20, Mequon, Wisconsin Patrick Rodgers, 21, Avon, Indiana Nathan Smith, 35, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Justin Thomas, 20, Goshen, Kentucky Cory Whitsett, 21, Houston, Texas Michael Weaver, 22, Fresno, California Todd White, 45, Spartanburg, South Carolina Bobby Wyatt, 21, Mobile, Alabama

GREAT BRITAIN & IRELAND TEAM Captain Nigel Edwards, Cardiff, Wales Matthew Fitzpatrick, 18, Yorkshire, England Nathan Kimsey, 20, Lincolnshire, England Gavin Moynihan, 18, Dublin, Ireland Max Orrin, 19, Kent, England Kevin Phelan, 22, County Waterford, Ireland Garrick Porteous, 23, Northumberland, England Rhys Pugh, 19, Mid Glamorgan, Wales Neil Raymond, 27, Hampshire, England Callum Shinkwin, 20, Hertfordshire, England Jordan Smith, 20, Wiltshire, England

VENUE
National Golf Links of America 6,986 yards, par 72

FORMAT
First day: Morning foursomes (four matches); afternoon singles (eight matches)
Second day: Morning foursomes (four matches); afternoon singles (10 matches)

SERIES
U.S. leads 34-8-1

That was exactly what Macdonald had hoped to create, a layout that was a showcase of the royal and ancient game as it existed in its ancestral home. And he was able to show his creation to the greater golfing world when the National hosted that first Walker Cup.

Ninety-one years later, Macdonald’s masterpiece is on display again, as the site of the 44th playing of that celebrated event, and also a place that represents the very best in golf. On and off the course.

Born in Canada in 1855 and raised in Chicago, Macdonald took up golf while studying at the University of St. Andrews. He got so good that he often teed it up with Old Tom Morris and his son Young Tom, the Tiger Woods of his era. Macdonald fell hard for the game. But when returned to the States, he rued how nonexistent it was in his adopted homeland.

Macdonald’s frustration with the lack of courses in the U.S. led to his organizing the Chicago Golf Club in 1892 and designing what became the country's first 18-hole layout. That club became one of the five founders of the United States Golf Association, and Macdonald served as vice president of the young organization. He also won its first official national amateur championship in 1895.

While Macdonald was a passionate player, he had much broader interests in golf. He was fascinated with course design and keen to spread the gospel of golf and promote the game in its most traditional forms. All of which led him to create the National Golf Links, after he moved from Chicago to New York. After much searching, Macdonald found a suitable piece of land for his new course, nearly 300 acres on Peconic Bay in Long Island that he described as "a God-endowed stretch of blessed seclusion." He made several trips to the British Isles to study the great golf holes there. Then, he set about building his course.

When the course at the National opened in 1911, it was a beauty, with spacious fairways; big, undulating greens; gaping bunkers; plenty of elevation changes; and lots of interesting angles on tee shots and approaches. The wind frequently blew, and balls skittering across the firm and fast turf easily ran into trouble. The track properly tested the skills of players as it also provided good sporting fun. And it quickly came to be regarded as a superb match-play course, which is exactly what Macdonald intended.

Most of the National’s early members were drawn from the cream of the New York business community, and they included Vanderbilts and Havemeyers and a fellow named Robert Todd Lincoln. Who happened to be Abe's son.

Its current roster boasts people with similarly impressive pedigrees. And as was the case with their predecessors, they come to this retreat in Southampton for the chance to spend time together on Macdonald's golf course and in the imposing stone clubhouse that he built on a bluff overlooking the bay. That structure features a labyrinth of locker rooms on the ground loor; a lobby, library, bar, lounge and dining room on the main floor; and an upstairs with guest bedrooms. It is in the dining room that the acclaimed National lunch is served, complete with cold lobster, shepherd’s pie and macaroni and cheese. And for those favoring a more modest repast, there is the Birdcage, an unattached room with glass windows overlooking the course and bay, where simple sandwiches are served and the club's famously potent Southsides are nursed.

The clubhouse at the National has the feel of a golfing museum, with its shelves of trophies and memorabilia. There is a statue of Macdonald in the building and also his portrait, and it is hard not to feel his presence here. But the real monument to the man is the golf course he built beyond those walls more than a century ago. Still great after all these years, and so worthy to be hosting once again a Walker Cup.

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