LACC Won the Walker Cup

In the two-plus hours it takes to travel from Lionel Ritchie’s old house to the Playboy Mansion, you can learn a lot about a place. And you can learn a lot about a group of people. After that walk at the 2017 Walker Cup on Los Angeles County Club’s North course the biggest thing I learned is how open and excited the membership is to be having us (and some extraordinarily elite golfers) all over for the weekend at one of America’s best and most exclusive tracts.

Having scored golf tournaments all over the world, I know there are Walker Cups where it’s no more likely to run into a member on the course during play than it is an Emirati in Dubai at the final event on the European Tour. But throughout the weekend in LA it was the members of LACC not just showing up, but doing some heavy lifting – serving as standard bearers, hustling from greens to the middle of fairways to marshal holes (never seeing a putt drop), working multiple rounds each day, and thanking any volunteer who wasn’t a member for helping make their home course shine.

It was completely unexpected… akin to the lack of mosquitoes on the Olympic golf course in Rio unexpected. The lead up to the tournament dwelled on the lack of openness and public signage at the great old course hidden off Wilshire up the bending drive as much as it did on the Gil Hanse re-design and the quality of the teams assembled from both sides of the Atlantic.

The course was everything I expected and more. Paintings should be made – and apparently are every few years – of the approach to the 1st hole with the Beverly Hilton and an iconic looking steeple in the background, the approach on the 3rd with its trio of palm trees rising above the left side of the green, the beautiful 7th from the back tee, the fantastic 8th hole from multiple locations as it twists from tee to green, the Hollywood hills framing the approach to 14, and the wonderfully curving fairway as viewed from the 17th tee. And of course the jaw dropping afternoon views of downtown Los Angeles from the 11th tee box remind you both of where you are and how far away from it all you’ve been.

Much has been said and written about the golf course, but more could and should have been – and likely will – when the USGA returns with the U.S. Open in six years. The George Thomas design and relatively recent renovation was a treat to walk. I particularly loved the space, sometimes as much as 20-30 yards, between “greenside” bunkers and greens – something that wasn’t usually apparent from the approach shot but added a whole new dimension to a handful of holes. The putting surfaces were firm and fast, a few greens actually reminding me of Merion’s that are subtle but tricky and more revealing as you see balls roll on them over multiple rounds.

For me personally, it was a thrill to be on the grounds as Norman Xiong emerged on the international stage as maybe the most dominate teenager in American golf. In January we walked a practice round during his collegiate debut in Arizona and again watched him murder golf balls at Stanford in March. Friendly, good-natured and with a huge grin on his face, the kid is a fearless golfer with a violently in control swing that is awesome to behold.

In what turned out to be an America rout, I achieved the nearly unthinkable: scoring two matches and two full points for the GB&I side. Saturday morning saw towering drives – one a 390-yard bomb on the 14th – from Cameron Champ and memorable lag putting (with a few key makes) from Scottie Scheffler, but also too many loose shots off the tee and on approaches plus putts that often raced by the hole leaving more than knee-knockers coming back. The GB&I pair of Scott Gregory (last year’s British Amateur Champion) and Jack Singh Brar made a lot of great decisions and played with a pace unheard of in the slow moving American college game.

On Sunday, we were witness to good but not great golf between Doc Redman, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion who’d shown himself to be a fantastic match play champion on another George Thomas design just down the road at Riviera last month, and Stanford alum and Welshman David Boote who was turning pro the next day. Both players entered the round without so much as half a point and the lack of conceded putts proved they were both gunning for a victory. But with only five birdies between them – and even a Boote victory with bogey on the par 3 seventh – the golf was probably not as crisp as either hoped. We were the last of only three singles matches to reach the 18th and watched the lights begin to glow on the clubhouse as thousands of spectators watched Doc’s last approach shot bound over the green and his well struck chip nonetheless race beyond the hole coming fast off the downslope.

The round was marked more by the fun, humor and good-natured exchanges between the standard bearer, rules official and me. I’d worked with the official before and share mutual friends from the San Francisco Bay area where he lives. And the standard bearer endured photos from his wife on the 3rd tee, cheers and heckles from his fellow members throughout the round, and tolerated my golf travel stories while adding insights on each hole and spirited commentary on golf, life and the karma that does in fact often wind through our shared journey.

The Walker Cup, and golf in general, is full of class acts – none more so than my pair of LACC standard bearers, but also that weekend from Scottie seeking out the scorer and standard bearer on the first tee to shake our hands and thank us, to Rules officials introducing us to players and sharing their stories from inside the ropes, to (again) LACC members telling tales from decades of membership and experiences on both the North and South courses and asking questions about U.S. Opens past and looking forward to their turn as hosts in 2023.

The class is always evident in Maverick McNealy’s grace, his wide smile and goofy joy as he talks about embracing the fun of professional golf and his excitement for the opportunities ahead on the PGA Tour in October and beyond. The class was certainly highlighted and on public display in the relationships forged between LACC caddies and their players – caddies I had the good fortune to meet on Friday with a buddy of mine who’s a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, officer in the Naval Reserve, aspiring screen writer and occasional LACC caddie himself. And the class was there in the exchanges you have with people you’ve met along the way, like the head pro at Hazeltine National with stories of the Ryder Cup and his love for this event, fellow volunteers from USGA events across the country cropping up here together in LA, or TV production folks you forged a bond with at the Olympics (who are this one weekend forced to wear long pants because well, LACC is pants-only you have to know).

I never did journey down behind the 14th tee to see the monkeys and peacocks and other assorted members of the Playboy Mansion zoo, but after three days of wandering and scoring across the 300 acres of LACC the highlights were never going to be so exotic. The highlights were – as they usually are after such an event – the people and the stories, the shared experience of watching greatness and near greatness, and the heart and the passion and the joy of each moment.

Mosquito Free. Scoring Olympic Gold.

While it may not exactly be my story to share, I’m not sure anything better sums up my experience at Olympic golf than Justin Rose’s Facetime call to his kids right after he signed his scorecard.

In a very short call, his son compared the Gold Medal to a medal he’d recently won at a soccer tournament and closed the call by warning his father not to trip on the medals podium. It was one of many human moments that transcended the golf played on Gil Hanse’s unique and exciting design in Rio de Janeiro.

There were so many human moments during the week it’s hard to capture them all even now.

Backed up on the 12th tee on Friday, Bubba Watson was taking selfies with fans along the ropes and handing out golf balls and pins to kids throughout the week; Martin Kaymer’s caddie was razzing Danny Willett and calling for the crowd to clap and whoop it up for “OUR MASTER’S CHAMPION” while Willett looked like he was going to swallow his tongue. After the round when I asked Justin Rose to sign the Olympic score sheet, Henrik Stenson asked if I wanted his autograph too because he was the Silver Medalist (prior to this I’d never had the second place finisher do much more than leave the scoring trailer). And Bubba, Rickie Fowler and all three American women showed up to cheer on Matt Kuchar for finishing third – I mean, winning the Bronze.

This was a different week.

And a special one.

I had the opportunity to score some great rounds of golf, watch some of the best players of our time, and witness history being made. By the end of the first two days I’d scored the first Olympic hole-in-one thanks to Rose (who did it with a 7-iron from 187 yards on the 4th hole); walked 18 with Fowler now at the Walker Cup, the US Open and the Olympics; got to score Willett and Kuchar and collected signed golf balls as a thank you from them all; and befriended a retired Rio native serving along side me as a scorer who shared his life in stories over dinner at a fantastic Brazilian steakhouse.

That was even before the final round assignments came out and we learned I would be scoring my first ever last group in a Sunday final round: Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Marcus Fraser. As it turned out, the first Olympic gold medal match in 112 years.

There were 16 birdies on Sunday between them – including two on the opening hole and two on the closing hole (Rose birdied both en route to a 67) – and the weather was perfect. A slight breeze on the first tee picked up as we went along to make things more challenging on the backside, but the sun was out and they were playing before a sold-out gallery. By the time we made the turn, the 18th grandstand was already full and waiting for us. We saw a caiman on the 10th hole, a capybara wandering the fence on the back nine and a half dozen full-sized Union Jacks blowing in the wind on every hole.

Our funny joking around with Rose and his caddie on a practice round day earlier in the week that two of us were from Philadelphia and had both scored at Merion – the site of his U.S. Open victory – were something both he and his caddie would mention as we made our walk from the first tee, to the 18th green, to the medals podium that Sunday.

So even now, long after scoring that match (and all four rounds of the women’s golf tournament), the voice of Rose’s 7-year-old son through the phone remains indelible. There was joy and excitement that you’d expect, but something more… you could see it in the scoring trailer on Rose’s face (who I believe wiped tears from his eyes as he sat down to sign his card). You could see it as his wife and mother stood there beaming with pride and emotion… and how they got choked up even talking to each other. And you could certainly hear it in the voices of his children as he put Great Britain’s team tracksuit on over his golf shirt before going out to claim his medal.

Rose would later call it a magical week. What an honor it was to feel a bit of that magic in that moment.

At the time Rose was asking everyone he saw if Andy Murray had won Gold that afternoon… because of course he was part of a team that week, a team much bigger than Mark Steinberg his agent, Mark Fulcher his caddie and whatever else Team Rose looks like day in and day out. (Plus indeed, Great Britain had claimed the Country Club Golds that day after all.)

It seemed like of all of us, Rose had felt what the Olympics meant all along. And watching his face as they played “God Save the Queen,” you got a sense golf in the Olympics might be here to stay.

So while it could have been fun to score Rory McIlroy instead of the long hitting youngster Seamus Powers (who I scored with Nicolas Colsaerts and Emiliano Grillo – with massive crowds from Argentina following us all day), I’m not sure it would have changed the Rose-Stenson-Kuchar medal stand. And maybe scoring Jordan Spieth instead of Matt Kuchar on Friday (who I scored with Danny Willett and Haotong Li of China) would have been different; it couldn’t have been more special than it already was.

During the week I took in women’s basketball with a friend from New Jersey and a lovely woman and her mother we’d met from Paris, we spent a night watching rugby sevens with some rowdy Texans and new friends from Sao Paulo, we watched diving with a few college girls from Arizona, and spent a night watching Gold Medal round wrestling. Sometimes we watched the Olympians and sometimes we watched the fans… fans from Iran, Spain, Mexico, Great Britain, Cuba, the US and everywhere else are much more the same than they are different. They all somehow got to Rio, they brought their noisemakers and their whole hearts and they cheered and yelled and made every venue we got to vibrate with passion.

To say I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the men and women who fought to get golf into the Olympics is an understatement. To think I got to play a little part in such a major thing; to think I might have missed the Olympics altogether without golf’s inclusion… But because these two weeks were as much about human moments as the sports themselves, I was lucky to have the opportunity to personally thank Peter Dawson, Gary Player, Ty Votaw, Ian Baker Finch, Paul McGinley, Gil Hanse and many others who walked the fairways with us every day.

This was a different golf trip.

And a special one.