The Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team will have to find nine points out of a possible 14 on Sunday if they are to retain the trophy at The Los Angeles Country Club.
Despite drawing the morning foursomes, and leading in five of the singles matches at one point, a fightback from Captain John “Spider” Miller’s team in afternoon gave the USA and 8-4 lead over Great Britain and Ireland in front of thousands of fans at the 46th Walker Cup.
Reigning NCAA champion Braden Thornberry, 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Will Zalatoris and world No. 2 Maverick McNealy, the only returning USA player from the seven-point loss in 2015 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, all rallied late for key victories, putting the Americans in prime position to reclaim the Cup.
“I would say to the team and these guys know it, we’re preparing as if we were even or down,” said Miller. “We’re not thinking ahead of ourselves. We have matches to play [Sunday] morning … and we have to be at our best and we have to fight for every point.”
In each of the last two USA victories – 2013 and 2009, they led by the same 8-4 score after Day 1. The team needs to garner five and half of the possible 14 points on Sunday – four from morning foursomes matches and 10 from afternoon singles – to win the two-day biennial competition.
At one point during the afternoon singles session, GB&I led in five of eight matches. Then things began to unravel for the visitors as the course began to play firmer and faster under the bright afternoon sunshine.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the result,” said GB&I captain Andy Ingram. “I think that a lot of the games were close, we made some mistakes probably where we shouldn’t have and we’ll learn from those. We need 13 points and we’ve got four.”
Thornberry, 20, started the USA comeback by winning four of the final five holes against reigning Amateur champion Harry Ellis. It was not the early birthday present Ellis wanted. The Englishman, who turns 22 on Sunday, was 2 up with five to play before Thornberry, a junior at the University of Mississippi, was conceded his birdie on the par-5 14th hole before registering winning pars on the 16th and 17th to take a 1-up lead. He saved his best for last, hitting his approach from 200 yards to 18 inches to seal a 2-up win.
“I pushed it a little bit, but we’re not going to tell anyone that,” said Thornberry. “But it was fun and I’m glad I could get the victory.”
21-year-old Matthew Jordan found himself in a tough match with Zalatloris, and he trailed by one hole after 12 holes. Zalatoris regained the lead with pars on the next two holes, then converted a clutch par putt on the 78-yard, par-3 15th hole. After a poor drive on No. 18, Zalatoris managed to hit his third shot to 8 feet, and when Jordan failed to convert his 15-foot downhill par putt, the Texan’s putt was conceded for a 2-up win.
But the happiest man on the property might have been McNealy, who went 0-2-1 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and has been eagerly waiting to avenge his 2015 performance. But as he walked down the 10th fairway during his match against 2016 Amateur champion Scott Gregory, the No. 2 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ admitted to feeling a bit fatigued. He went 2 down to the 22-year-old from England.
Then the former hockey player turned it on in what he dubbed “the third period.” He squared the match with winning pars on the12th and 13th, then delivered the knockout blow with an 18-foot birdie putt on 15th to trigger three consecutive wins and a 3&1 victory. That followed up his 5&4 morning foursomes win with 2017 U.S. Amateur runner-up Doug Ghim.
“I joked with Doug this morning … that I doubled my point total career-wise for the Walker Cup,” said McNealy, who is playing his final amateur competition. “But this is big for me. I really wanted to play well this week for my teammates, for my country [and] for Captain Miller. It’s a great start today, but there’s a lot of golf left and those guys are playing awesome, so we got to keep the pedal down.”
Norman Xiong, 18, delivered the other USA comeback in singles, erasing an early 3-down deficit against Connor Syme, of Scotland, in posting a 2&1 victory. Collin Morikawa, 20, and Ghim never trailed in their singles victories. Morikawa defeated Paul McBride, 21, of the Republic of Ireland, 3&&2, and Ghim earned a 2&1 decision over 2016 Stanford graduate David Boote, 23, of Wales.
The two GB&I singles victories came from 2016 Amater runner-up Robert McIntyre, of Scotland, and Jack Singh Brar, of England. McIntyre, 21, who sat out the morning foursomes session, defeated long-hitting Cameron Champ 6&4, while Singh Brar, 20, built as much as a 6-up advantage over reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad, 26, before earning a 3&2 win.
“It was an incredible start,” said Singh Brar. “Obviously you couldn’t have asked for much better. Played pretty solid. This afternoon I had a great start and then just kept it going.”
Collin Morikawa and Norman Xiong, USA def. Harry Ellis and Alfie Plant, GB&I, 8 and 7
Connor Syme and Paul McBride, GB&I def. Doc Redman and Will Zalatoris, USA, 3 and 2
Scott Gregory and Jack Singh Brar, GB&I def. Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Champ, USA, 3 and 2
Maverick McNealy and Doug Ghim, USA def. David Boote and Jack Davidson, GB&I, 6 and 4
Braden Thornberry, USA def. Harry Ellis, GB&I, 2 up
Norman Xiong, USA def. Connor Syme, GB&I, 2 and 1
Jack Singh Brar, GB&I def. Stewart Hagestad, USA, 3 and 2
Collin Morikawa, USA def. Paul McBride, GB&I, 3 and 2
Will Zalatoris, USA def. Matthew Jordan, GB&I, 2 up
Robert MacIntyre, GB&I def. Cameron Champ, USA, 6 and 4
Doug Ghim, USA def. David Boote, GB&I, 2 and 1
Maverick McNealy, USA def. Scott Gregory, GB&I, 3 and 1
Sunday pairings and tee times
7:15 a.m. – Connor Syme and Paul McBride, GB&I vs. Norman Xiong and Collin Morikawa, USA
7:30 a.m. – Jack Singh Brar and Scott Gregory, GB&I vs. Braden Thornberry and Doc Redman, USA
7:45 a.m. – David Boote and Jack Davidson, GB&I vs. Will Zalatoris and Cameron Champ, USA
8 a.m. – Matthew Jordan and Robert MacIntyre, GB&I vs. Doug Ghim and Maverick McNealy, USA
12:30 p.m. – Jack Singh Brar, GB&I vs. Stewart Hagestad, USA
12:40 p.m. – Scott Gregory, GB&I vs. Norman Xiong, USA
12:50 p.m. – Connor Syme, GB&I vs. Scottie Scheffler, USA
1 p.m. – Harry Ellis, GB&I vs. Collin Morikawa, USA
1:10 p.m. – Paul McBride, GB&I vs. Braden Thornberry, USA
1:20 p.m. – Matthew Jordan, GB&I vs. Doug Ghim, USA
1:30 p.m. – Robert MacIntyre, GB&I vs. Cameron Champ, USA
1:40 p.m. – Jack Davidson, GB&I vs. Will Zalatoris, USA
1:50 p.m. – David Boote, GB&I vs. Doc Redman, USA
2 p.m. – Alfie Plant, GB&I vs. Maverick McNealy, USA
Follow scoring of the 46th Walker Cup match from Los Angeles Country Club.
TV coverage available on Sky Sports Golf in the UK.