ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – As the final few singles matches came down the par-4 finishing hole Saturday evening at St. Andrews’ Old Course, a pair of bagpipers set up shop about 100 yards away from the green, just outside the gates and across the street from the Hamilton Grand, the town’s iconic six-story, red-brick apartment building. For over an hour, they played song after song, including a few renditions of “Scotland the Brave,” a popular tune that celebrates the bravery of the Scottish people.
Stuart Wilson surely was a proud captain after witnessing the courage displayed by his Great Britain and Ireland squad on the first day of the 49th Walker Cup.
The home side, already nursing a three-Cup losing streak dating to 2017’s 19-7 U.S. beatdown, spotted a juggernaut American team a sizeable world-rankings advantage – 8.2 to 88.6 – before lighting all that paper on fire.
Thanks to a few late singles rallies, GB&I leads 7.5-4.5.
“It's been hard-fought day,” Wilson said. “I think I've been saying that from the off, that this is going to be a tight match, and the American side came out strong this afternoon and went up in a lot of matches through the front nine, but our guys showed grit and determination and kept fighting.”
The U.S. certainly looked motivated after dropping the opening foursomes, 3-1, a first-session deficit that has never been overcome since 1971, when tied matches began earning half-points. At one point on the front nine, six of the eight matches were going the way of the visitors. Tennessee sophomore Caleb Surratt jumped on two-time Walker Cupper Barclay Brown in the leadoff match and closed the Stanford fifth-year senior out, 4 and 3. In the penultimate match, Stewart Hagestad, playing a fourth Walker Cup, made easy work of morning hero Alex Maguire, never trailing in a 4-and-3 triumph.
And world No. 1 Gordon Sargent secured his second point of the day by winning his final two holes against Jack Bigham, Sargent’s 1-up win capped by Sargent bombing his tee ball 25 feet past the hole at the 356-yard finisher and two-putting for birdie.
“If we can just kind of get out of today just anywhere near, I think we'll be in a good spot,” Sargent said.
Sargent was in good spirits in that moment. Even as he played the last, the Americans were projected to end the first two sessions knotted in a 6-6 tie. But by the time Sargent finished a brief interview right of the putting surface, GB&I had begun to flip the momentum back in its favor.
Cue the bagpipes.
Next up at No. 18 was North Carolina fifth-year senior Austin Greaser, who led 2 up through 13 holes and was flushing it but couldn’t buy a putt. Ireland’s Liam Nolen then birdied Nos. 14 and 15 before Greaser, without a one-putt all day, three-putted from just short of the closing green to drop a 1-up result.
Greaser’s Tar Heel teammate, David Ford, followed. Ford eagled the par-4 10th hole to go 3 up on Ireland’s Mark Power, who just wrapped up his career at ACC rival Wake Forest. But Power battled back to take a slim lead after 15 holes, and a beautiful drive to a few paces off the front-right edge of the green helped Power seal a 1-up victory of his own.
Both reversals ignited a healthy crowd of a few thousand, most rooting for the home team, and dampened the spirits of the American faithful.
“I was feeding off the crowd,” Power said.
Two nearby bigpipers play as matches come down 18 pic.twitter.com/c1icsScBoF
— Brentley Romine (@BrentleyGC) September 2, 2023
Arizona State junior Preston Summerhays gutted out an important half-point against GB&I mid-amateur Matt McClean, though two other victories that had wrapped up earlier – Scot Calum Scott’s 2-and-1 victory over North Florida’s Nick Gabrelcik and Englishman John Gough’s 6-and-5 thrashing of U.S. Amateur champion Nick Dunlap – helped Wilson’s squad to the GB&I’s largest first-day lead since 1989, when it went on to win by a point at Peachtree Golf Club.
And one has to go back to 1963 at Turnberry to find the last time the U.S. has trailed by three or more points after the first day and won.
The deficit isn’t ideal for the Americans, but as they cleared the sun-splashed arena at the Home of Golf and headed toward their quarters at the Old Course Hotel, they still carried with them at least a few doses of perspective, even if their heads hung slightly lower than they did 12 hours prior.
“We all know that it's not necessarily out of reach,” Sargent said. “There's still 14 points out there.”
Added Dunlap: “I don’t think we played that bad today. You know, they’re allowed to play well, they’re allowed to make putts, and they made a lot of them today.”
Dunlap’s performance Saturday was inarguably the most surprising, as amateur golf’s unquestioned top player all summer went 0-2. He dropped each of his first five holes to Gough. Asked if a demanding stretch of golf in recent weeks – a pre-U.S. Amateur get-together for Walker Cuppers at Castle Pines, a victorious nine-day run at Cherry Hills and golf every day in Scotland since last Saturday – had taken a toll on him physically, Dunlap shrugged at the thought.
“I’m good,” Dunlap said. “Still got some energy. Came out a little slow today. Gotta come out tomorrow and give it my best.”
McCoy apparently is expecting it, as instead of benching Dunlap for Sunday morning’s four-match foursomes session, he’ll send him out with Sargent. They’ll face the 2-0 Scott and 16-year-old Connor Graham, who teamed with Scott in a foursomes win over Surratt and Ben James on Saturday morning.
The American leader broke up two more foursomes pairings, giving Greaser another North Carolina teammate – and deft putter – Dylan Menante, and putting Summerhays with Gabrelcik. Hagestad and Ford will sit.
Ten singles matches will follow Sunday afternoon as the U.S. looks to overcome a second straight first-day deficit as Walker Cup visitors. Yes, the Americans have a little bit of history on their side, too. Two years ago at Royal Liverpool, they were two points down entering Sunday before winning eight singles matches en route to a five-point victory.
As McCoy, Sargent and Hagestad made their way into the media tent, the GB&I fans basked in their side’s improbable lead, showering their players with congratulations and even draping a couple in flags. The energy was high.
“I will not be able to sleep tonight,” Nolan said. “I cannot wait to get out there again tomorrow.”
The Americans were stone-faced. Sure, they weren’t happy with the current ledger, but they also didn’t seem panicked, even with gustier winds expected on Sunday.
“People have made big turnarounds,” McCoy said. “[I’ll] just ask them to give us their best tomorrow and play without fear and play with a discipline. We made a few mistakes off the tee. We drove it in some places we shouldn't have driven it. Maybe we lost a little discipline. So, we'll talk about that. But I think we're just going to ask them to bring the game that earned them the spot to play here…
“I'm not totally dejected.”
McCoy knows he’s got a brave bunch as well.