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.

Maybe DJ Doesn’t Shoot 68. But He Wins.

In retrospect, maybe the most interesting part is that we didn’t really know the firestorm that was brewing after our group left the 12th tee. We were just walking along watching and scoring some incredible golf. A couple of reporters were on their phones following Twitter and other social media so we had some notion, but not nearly the full picture of how the rest of the golf world was exploding.

Of course we now know the drama at Oakmont started on the par four 5th hole. The standard bearer and the “scoring supervisor” stayed up on the 6th tee rather than walk down to that hole. But Lee Westwood hit his approach shot short of the green and I couldn’t quite tell where it was, so I walked up with the three rules guys and stood with them on one of the mounds just left of the green. That turned out to be a fortunate thing. Mark Newell was the senior rules guy (and USGA Executive Committee member) who went out to the green to confer with DJ and Westwood.  When he walked back to us, I confirmed there was no penalty and even confirmed the stroke DJ was about to hit.

When we got to the 12th hole, USGA officials held all the media back near the edge of the 11th green when we walked up… I didn’t think much of that since it’s a pretty tight space anyway. The standard bearer and I walked up to the tee and overheard most of the conversation. I wasn’t paying that much attention at the beginning so I missed any reference to WHAT they were talking about. When I heard them say “we’ll have you review the video after the round before you sign your card” I started listening a lot more closely. We assumed it was about the 5th hole, but it wasn’t totally clear in the moment since I didn’t start eavesdropping in earnest until halfway through their chat.

Again I asked Mark Newell after the talk, is there anything I need to know for scoring purposes? He said “no.”

As the players and caddies walked off the 12th tee I fell in line behind the rules team… and Westwood dropped back to us. He was angry. He said something very much like this: “If you’re wondering who made the ball move on the green I’d vote it was the USGA. You have greens running at 16 on the stimpmeter and you put the holes on these little nobs and bumps, so if you’re looking for what made the ball move I’d look less at Dustin and more at yourselves.” Not those exact words, but very, very close to that. And he wasn’t quiet about it.

After that we got to see some fantastic golf from DJ and besides the regular madness of scoring a guy late on Sunday in contention – more reporters and media inside the ropes, etc. – it wasn’t that different except for people in the grandstands yelling “Come on let ’em play, ref” and somewhat hilarious stuff like that.

A TV guy’s radio went on and off – always one of my fears because of that ridiculous noise it makes going back on – just as DJ was about to hit his approach on 18. Dustin backed off, stared at the TV crew in the middle of the fairway and barked: “Really bro? Really?” Then he turned and proceeded to stuff the ball right behind the pin. That was pretty much the moment I felt that no matter what the penalty was – a stroke? two strokes? none? – Dustin Johnson had probably just won the U.S. Open.

The standard bearer and I were at the foot of the steps behind 18 as Westwood walked off… DJ took a good bit longer. We realized we were standing next to Bubba Watson holding his son and then I noticed Jack Nicklaus was standing on the other side of him. (I didn’t realize until later that the USGA was naming the gold medal for the champion after him, so it was both cool and shocking to see him there.) Again, bonus material for me because we clearly overheard Nicklaus – while embracing DJ – say how proud of him he was “especially with all the crap the USGA threw at you.” Never thought I’d hear “crap” and “USGA” in that voice in the same sentence. Haha.

We followed DJ up over the bridge and into the SWAT room in the Oakmont clubhouse. After Mike Davis and the USGA rules team guided him into a private room I stood and waited. Westwood was sitting at the scoring table and looked up at me and asked if I’d walked in with Dustin. I said “yes.” He asked me where he was now. I said he was in the room behind the closed door and pointed. He leaped out of his seat and, no joke, said, “Oh that’s bullshit I’m his official marker, I should be in that room too” and knocked on the door and disappeared.

You really do have to respect Lee Westwood… for that, and for a bunch of smaller reasons that unfolded over the round and especially the back nine. It was fairly obvious early on that he was no longer in contention to win after a rough start, but he played quickly and stayed out of Dustin’s way because it was clear that Dustin was right in the thick of things.

After they came back and reviewed and signed the official score cards I had DJ sign the paper copy of the score sheet we keep. He was extremely nice to everyone. It very much seemed to me that Westwood was a lot more upset than Dustin ever was about everything – at least expressively. Austin Johnson asked what I was going to do with the signed sheets and I told him eventually I’d probably frame them and hang them in my office. He asked if I was going to change the score before framing it. My response: “Lee Westwood and I both have him shooting a 68, that may have changed after the fact but that’s the score I kept and the one I’ll frame.”

“Yes, bro. Just yes. I’m going to tell him that hangs in your office one day as a 68. Yes,” was the response I got.

It was pretty amazing being on the green for the presentation ceremony too. We met Paulina, Jack Nicklaus, and got photos with Dustin… but that’s not really the golf story out of all this.

This was a special experience on a golf course I’ve played and marveled at before… and a day where the game truly loved me back a bit.