Royal County Down - the stage and the players

Jack Nicklaus couldn’t conquer it and neither could Tom Watson. The majestic, savage beauty of Royal County Down should have been enough of a hint. This is a thinking man’s links but even the shrewdest players ever to play the game were flummoxed by the guile of what is arguably, Irish golf’s finest course When the best amateurs in Britain and Ireland face the cream of American golf in the Walker Cup, they will also be taking on the history of the game on a course that was designed before the advent of the bulldozer.

Modern equipment has made many great courses virtually obsolete in recent years but the links at Newcastle defies graphite, the ProV1 and anything else that modern golf cares to throw at it.

Rather than trying to overpower the course, golf’s future superstars will be forced to play it with the sensitivity of a virtuoso violinist because this is a unique test in the game with its myriad blind shots, subtle run-offs and fringe-topped bunkers.

Whether the wind whips in from Dundrum Bay, screams up the coast from Baltray or wafts over the mountains of Mourne and down to the sea, it will provide a stern test and some wonderful matchplay.

Nicklaus found the gorse and bunker protected, par-five 18th particularly difficult to play, pointing out that anything hit left off the tee or with the second shot was tantamount to golfing suicide.

“You may as well go to the clubhouse or the airline booth and get a ticket home because you just can’t hit it there,” Nicklaus said during the 2001 Senior Open, where he tied for sixth. “Unless I drive the ball far enough to where I could play an iron into that green which means the wind would have to come behind me a bit, I would hit iron off the tee.”

England’s Gary Wolstenholme, who won five Walker Cup caps, described the course as something akin to an Irish version of St Andrews or Royal St Georges

“Sometimes you get some funny bounces and you have just got to accept it,” he said during a Walker Cup panel session at the course earlier this year. “If you make a mistake you are working very hard to retrieve par or make a bogey. It is just like Augusta in some respects. Bobby Jones designed Augusta with St Andrews in mind and is quite unique. If you are not in the right place, getting yourself out of trouble is really hard. Because the greens are slightly raised, it makes it very difficult. Even if you miss a green pin high, it is actually harder than if you are at the front of a green.”

Wolstenholme must have been listening to Ulsterman Ronan Rafferty, whose Walker Cup appearance came alongside current captain Colin Dalgleish at Cypress Point in 1981. The Warrenpoint man was the youngest ever Walker Cup player at the time and he was called in specially by Dalgleish earlier this year to give Great Britain and Ireland’s young guns his expertise on how to play the course.

“I found myself telling the guys to hit it safe to the middle of the green here, safe to the middle of the green there,” Rafferty said. “And you can see that the kids today play a different style of game. They play aggressive and you can’t be aggressive round here. So it is a matter of taking somebody from that kind of game and bringing them back and showing them you can get the ball close to the hole with a little punched seven iron from 120 yards rather than a nine-iron or a wedge.

“That is why I say it is a negative golf course. There is lots of pull back and play safe. I found myself saying things like, never hit it past the centre of the green. There are runways in from 20 yards and 30 yards short of most greens here. Now if you are standing 140 yards away from a pin that is dangling the carrot right there in front of you and you have a nine-iron, it is very difficult to say, let’s chip it 100 yards and run it up there.

“With no disrespect at all to the players, they are all very talented, it is not their style. This is not their style of golf course and they have got to adapt to it. This doesn’t compromise, they have to.

“The last few holes are killers. The 15th. Then 16, you are standing 50 yards short of the green thinking, this is a hard shot. The 17th suddenly becomes hard and 18 well, I remember during the seniors here, they were hitting irons off the tee and still had no idea how to get it up there.”

Voted the world’s best course outside the United States by Golf Digest magazine, it almost defies description in terms of its beauty. But the late Peter Dobereiner, one of golf’s finest chroniclers, managed to do it justice. “The essence of golf is to say that it enhances the feeling that it is good to be alive,” he wrote. “That’s the first priority and absolute justification. The links of Royal County Down are exhilarating even without a club in your hand. This strip of dune land was 90 percent along on the road to being a golf course long before the game was invented.”

The teams

Great Britain and Ireland

Rory McIlroy, 18, Holywood (Ireland)

The great white hope of European golf, McIlroy has been destined for greatness since he burst onto the amateur scene in 2005 by becoming the youngest winner of the West of Ireland and Irish Amateur Close titles.

He became the youngest full member of Holywood Golf Club when he was eight, had his first hole-in-one at nine and shot level par at his home club when he was just 11.

Down to scratch at 13, he fired a course record 61 at Royal Portrush in 2005 but failed to make the Walker Cup side for Chicago that year.

Winner of the European Amateur title last season, he broke par in three of his four rounds at the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year before winning the silver medal at The Open with rounds of 68, 76, 73 and 72 for five over par.

Earlier this season he won the Sherry Cup in Spain, was second in the Lytham Trophy and fourth in the Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin.

He has a full hand of Irish Boys, Youth and Senior titles and successfully defended the latter at the European Club in 2006 following his win a year earlier at Westport. The Walker Cup has been one of his primary goals for several years and he hopes to say goodbye to the amateur game with a memorable performance in front of his home fans at Royal County Down.

He said: “It would be great to finish off at Royal County Down hopefully winning the Walker Cup and capping off a great amateur career and then going on to bigger and better things.”

Jonathan Caldwell, 23, Clandeboye (Ireland)

Caldwell was a member of Ireland’s European Team Championship winning side at Western Gailes where he gained four points out of a possible six.

He has represented Ireland at various levels since being capped as a boy in 2002 and this year made the semi-final stage of the Irish Amateur Close.

“Everyone is naturally delighted for me and I’ll get great support during the match,” he said. “I knew having done well at the European Championship was important but I also had a good run at the British Amateur which didn’t hurt.”

Almost certain to be paired with fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, Caldwell is in the final year of a degree in sports management at the University of South Alabama.

A plus four handicapper, he has yet to decide whether he wants to make his living from the game and plans to remain an amateur for at least another year. “I want to play amateur golf again next summer and then think about turning pro and going to qualifying school,” he said. “But it’s not written in stone.”

Rhys Davies, 22, Royal Porthcawl (Wales)

Davies played in the 2005 Walker Cup side that lost in Chicago and graduated this year from East Tennessee State University with a degree in Business Administration.  While at Tennessee, Davies recorded 10 USA Collegiate Tournament wins and was an NCAA first team All American from 2005-2007. He qualified for the US Open at Oakmont this year but missed the cut and was a 2007 Ben Hogan Award finalist.

Nigel Edwards, 38, Whitchurch (Wales)

The oldest player on Colin Dalgleish’s side, Edwards will be playing in his fourth Walker Cup after being in the winning teams of 2001 (Ocean Forest) and 2003 (Ganton) and in the squad that lost at Chicago in 2005.

Director of Player Development and Coaching with the Golf Union of Wales, he won the Duncan Putter and finished second in the Lytham Trophy, third in the Welsh Stroke Play and fifth in the St Andrews Links Trophy. He has represented Wales since 1995.

David Horsey, 22, Styal (England)

An England international since 2006, Horsey successfully defended his West of England title at Saunton this year and followed that win with a fourth place in the Brabazon Trophy at Forest of Arden and a sixth place in the St Andrews Links Trophy.

In the Amateur Championship at Lytham, he shot a course record 64 to lead the qualifiers. Two years ago he lost to Rory McIlroy in the semi-finals of the West of Ireland championship at County Sligo.

Llewellyn Matthews, 23, Southerndown (Wales)

Winner of the 2007 Welsh Order of Merit, Matthews romped to a wire-to-wire victory in the St Andrews Links Trophy with a closing 67 on the Old Course. He also successfully defended his Welsh Amateur title and qualified for The Open at Carnoustie where he shots rounds of 75 and 83 to miss the cut.

Jamie Moul, 22, Stoke-by-Nayland (England)

No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking for 16 weeks based on his performances over the 12-month period that started with his win in the 2006 Lytham Trophy followed by a third place in the Brabazon Trophy.

Last year, he reached the semi-finals of both the British and English Amateur Championships. He also won the Brabazon Trophy this year, finished fourth in the St Andrews Links Trophy and reached the last 16 of the Amateur Championship.

He has played for GB&I in both the Jacques Leglise Trophy and the St Andrews Trophy and has represented England in the Eisenhower Trophy.

John Parry, 20, Harrogate (England)

A latecomer to the Walker Cup reckoning, Parry caught the attention of the selectors with wins this year in the Spanish Amateur and the Welsh Stroke Play at Machynys. He is a former winner of the McEvoy Trophy and the Danish Amateur and was the Faldo Series Under-21 Champion in 2005.

Lloyd Saltman, 24, Craigielaw (Scotland)

The top GB&I player, at No. 3 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Saltman will be making his second Walker Cup appearance in Newcastle. This year he dominated the early tournaments with wins in the Champion of Champions, the Craigmillar Park Open, the Lytham Trophy and the Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin.

Daniel Willett, 19, Rotherham (England)

A player in form, Willett won the English Amateur Championship and had impressive 10-shot win in the South of England Championship at Walton Heath. He attends college in Jacksonville, Florida.

Non-playing captain

Colin Dalgleish, 46, Helensburgh (Scotland)

Dalgleish, 45, won the Scottish Amateur Championship at Western Gailes in 1981 and later that year was rewarded with a place in the Walker Cup team that played the US at Cypress Point.

He is a director of Perry Golf, a golf travel company specialising in trips between North America and Europe.

United States* (Two players to be named after US Amateur)

Jonathan Moore, 22, Vancouver, Washington

Moore won the 2006 NCAA title as a freshman for Oklahoma State and qualified for the 2006 US Open. Represented the USA at the 2006 World Amateur Team Championship and the 2007 Copa de las Americas Championship.

Jamie Lovemark, 19, Rancho Santa Fe, California

Only the eighth freshman to win the NCAA individual title in 2007, representing the University of Southern California. Playing as an invited amateur, he lost a two-hole playoff at the Nationwide Tour’s Rochester Area Charities Showdown earlier this year. In July, he tied for 45th at the AT&T National on the PGA Tour.

Trip Kuehne, 35, Irving, Texas

Kuehne qualified for his fourth US Open in 2007 and reached the quarterfinals of the 2006 US Amateur. A 1995 graduate of Oklahoma State University, Kuehne played in the 1995 and 2003 US Walker Cup teams. He lost to Tiger Woods in the 1994 US Amateur final.

Billy Horschel, 20, Grant, Florida

Horschel has been among the top-five finishers at a handful of prestigious amateur competitions this season. A two-time first team All-American heading into his junior year at the University of Florida, he posted a USGA-record 60 in the first round of stroke play at the 2006 US Amateur. He also qualified for the 2006 US Open.

Dustin Johnson, 23, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

A graduate of Coastal Carolina University, where he was the Big South Conference 2007 Player of the Year, Johnson won the Monroe Invitational and the Northeast Amateur this year.

Chris Kirk, 22, Woodstock, Georgia

Kirk won the 2007 Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer, representing the University of Georgia. He was the individual runner-up at the 2006 NCAA Championship and finished ninth in 2007. He played for the US squad at the 2006 World Amateur Team Championship.

Colt Knost, 22, Dallas, Texas

Knost won the 2007 US Amateur Public Links title and played in the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, where he shot a second-round 64 on his way to finishing tied for 67th. A recent graduate of Southern Methodist University, Knost was the 2007 Conference USA Player of the Year.

Webb Simpson, 21, Raleigh, North Carolina

Simpson was named to the 2006 US World Amateur Team and the 2007 US Copa de las Americas team. He reached the semifinals of the 2006 US Amateur. He won the 2006 Sunnehanna Amateur and the 2007 Azalea Amateur and the 2007 Southern Amateur.

Non-playing captain

George “Buddy” Marucci, 55, Villanova, Pennsylvania.

Marucci played on the 1995 and 1997 Walker Cup teams and was runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 1995 US. Co-owner of luxury car dealerships in the Philadelphia area.