Time to walk the walk

From Brian Keogh at Royal County Down

They’ve talked the talk. Now it’s time to walk the walk.

With knees knocking and butterflies whirling, the top amateurs from the United States will take on the cream of Great Britain and Ireland and around 10,000 partisan supporters in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful settings in the world of golf.

Royal County Down is in magnificent shape for the 41st Walker Cup matches and not even the most romantic script writer could have chosen a better stage for local hero Rory McIlroy to bid farewell to his adoring public.

The 18-year-old Holywood prodigy will tee it up at the first stage of the European Tour’s Qualifying School next week but after surviving first tee nerves in the Open at Carnoustie, McIlroy is relishing what many have already described as one of the most intimidating moments in a player’s golfing career.

Open champion Padraig Harrington has confessed that he has yet to experience the kind of fear he felt on the first tee when Ireland staged the Walker Cup matches at Portmarnock in 1991.

But McIlroy is relishing the challenge and claims that the bigger the challenge and the more nervous he feels, the better he plays. On the longest course in Walker Cup history, his performances will be key.

“You've watched me long enough to know that I love the pressure,” said McIlroy, who will partner fellow Ulsterman Jonathan Caldwell in the second foursomes match of the morning against Colt Knost and Dustin Johnson, the top two players in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. “I enjoy playing under it and I am really looking forward to it.

“I have really enjoyed the week so far and come Saturday morning I will be excited and up for it. Royal County Down is one of those courses that makes me focus. I love it.”

Florida’s Billy Horschel or big-hitting Californian teenager Rickie Fowler will have the honour of striking the first tee shot in the opening foursomes as they take on Scotland’s Lloyd Saltman and Rhys Davies of Wales.

Nerves will play a major part in the proceedings and America’s non-playing captain George “Buddy” Marucci admitted that his charges will be heading into the unknown as the fans walk the fairways with the players.

The course itself is totally alien to the American players but Marucci, who played on the losing US side at Royal Portcawl in 1995, believes their reaction to the “crowd factor” will be crucial.

“I think it's just getting acclimated to the numbers of people,” he said. “There are going to be walking crowds this year, and we've had some of that in our country, but not to the extent that they will see it over here. It will be a question of getting used to people being right on top of them although I think in Northern Ireland, even in Scotland, the fans are very respectful.”

Opening day nerves were the big talking point in the media centre interviews yesterday but Welshman Nigel Edwards pointed out that even the best player in the world has gone weak at the knees in a Walker Cup.

“There's no reason why you shouldn't be shaking,” said Edwards, who will not make is fourth Walker Cup appearance until the singles. “I think Tiger Woods said he did it, so the rest of us do it. I think if you're not nervous, it doesn't matter enough to you. But you've got to deal with it. Obviously the best players are able to deal with those situations and get their mind on the job.”

McIlroy was in stunning form yesterday as he trounced world No 3 Saltman by five holes as the ten-man Great Britain and Ireland side split into five singles matches between the players from Ireland/Wales and those from Scotland/England.

That particular match ended in a tie but while the bookies have made GB&I the 4-6 favourites to win the Waker Cup for only the eighth time, American veteran Trip Kuehne believes that the result of the matches comes second only the spirit of the amateur game.

“I don't play for the individual glory the sport can bring,” Kuehne said. “Professional golf is going to be around forever. There is a great amateur game where there's guys that are 25 years old plus representing their country, and I just don't think it's going to be around forever.

“And I'm scared deeply about that because I care about the amateur game of golf. I don't care about the professional game of golf. Amateur golf is what I care about and it's what I love.”

Walker Cup, Day 1
(GB&I names first)
8.30 Lloyd Saltman & Rhys Davies v Billy Horschel & Rickie Fowler
8.45 Rory McIlroy & Jonny Caldwell v Colt Knost & Dustin Johnson
9.00 John Parry & David Horsey v Trip Kuehne & Kyle Stanley
9.15 Jamie Moul & Danny Willett v Webb Simpson & Jonathan Moore

1.15 Rory McIlroy v Billy Horschel
1.25 Lloyd Saltman v Rickie Fowler
1.35 Rhys Davies v Dustin Johnson
1.45 Danny Willett v Colt Knost
2.00 Llewellyn Matthews v Jamie Lovemark
2.10 Nigel Edwards v Kyle Stanley
2.20 Jamie Moul v Chris Kirk
2.30 David Horsey v Webb Simpson