Amateurs kick off oldest team event in the world at St Andrews

Liam Nolan of Great Britain and Ireland celebrates winning on day one of the Walker Cup at St Andrews

For a sport that is supposedly an individual pursuit, golf will surely never witness a month in which team play dominates so heavily as it does in September 2023.

And on the opening day of this feast of fellowship, this cascade of camaraderie, the young Great British and Irishmen showed how to humble the might of the United States, even if it proves only to be for two sessions.

At 7½ to 4½, the home side have their largest first-day lead in 34 years, and have equalled their biggest halfway advantage at a Walker Cup since the format was changed 52 years ago. Every underdog has their day and to deny the overwhelming favourites Stuart Wilson’s team will obviously need another on Sunday.

What a marvellous curtain-raiser this has already been and, with the Solheim Cup and Ryder Cup to follow in back-to-back weeks later in the month, how appropriate that the Walker Cup – the original and, still to many traditionalists, the best – is teeing off this kaleidoscope of kinsmanship.

Of course, it is easy to go over the top and when the sun is streaming on the most hallowed links of all and with the home side battling clear of the seemingly unstoppable Americans – a 10-man team boasting nine players in the world amateur top 10 – it was almost impossible not to dip into the hyperbole on the 100th anniversary of the first Walker Cup at St Andrews.

Impressive crowds streamed on to the Old Course as the “Auld Grey Toon” was lit up by a competition that is as pure as golf is ever going to get in this era of petro-dollars and personal gain, and all went away toasting a couple of performances from the two Tartan lads who spearheaded to the resistance to try to stop the visitors from winning four Walker Cups in succession for the first time in 34 years.

Calum Scott won two out of two, the Nairn 20-year-old defeating Nick Gabrelcik in the afternoon singles. If that 2&1 triumph was notable for the fact that the world No 31 took down the world No 9 – in truth, in this volatile format that differential in rankings does not begin to constitute a “shock” – then his morning endeavours were historic.

Scott’s partner in the foursomes against world No 7 and No 8, Caleb Surratt and Gordon Sargent, was Connor Graham, at 16 the youngest competitor ever to play in the 101-year existence of what some daftly call “the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup” (it came first).

‘He’d take your eye out of your head for a pound’

Not only did the teenager from Blairgowrie eclipse Oli Fischer – the DP World Tour winner who shot the first ever 59 on the European circuit five years ago – and Rory McIlroy in the age stakes, but Graham also achieved what that pair could not… he won his first match.

In fact, he starred in the 3&2 success and Scott was full of praise, not quite as fulsome as Graham’s coach Fintan Bonner – “He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met, he’d take your eye out of your head for a pound.” – but still overflowing with his compliments.

“We didn’t know what to expect going into this round, but Connor at 16 held himself really well against these top players, with their calibre, and I couldn’t be happier for him,” Scott, 20, said. “He played remarkably. He is incredible for his age.”

Wilson’s men swaggered in from the foursomes 3-1 to the good and Graham was, probably wisely, one of the two players rested in the eight afternoon singles, but the wee fella from Blairgowrie was there cheering his team-mates on as once again they had the best of the final hour’s play.

In the morning, GB&I won the last two foursomes on the last and in the singles roared home Liam Nolan and Mark Power, as they also prevailed on the 18th, in front of the famous clubhouse. The duo were two-down after 13 and three-down against Austin Greaser and David Ford respectively but fed on the energy of the Old Course support.

In GB&I’s last two wins – at Royal Aberdeen in 2011 and Royal Lytham in 2015 – they were 7-5 going into the final day. But beware, they were two points ahead after the first day four years ago at Hoylake and lost 15½-10½. With 10 singles following four more morning foursomes, the Amercans have the potential to burst clear.

“It’s going to be tight,” Wilson said. Indeed, it is likely to be one of those team golf days when the leaderboard changes by the minute and the calculators are out trying to predict who will get over the line. Golf fans should get used to it, in this of all months.

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