WALKER CUP

Dream Team: Was 2017 USA Walker Cup Team the Best Ever?

By Nick Pietruszkiewicz

| May 10, 2023

Dream Team: Was 2017 USA Walker Cup Team the Best Ever?

The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

Spider Miller didn’t hesitate, didn’t need a moment to think about the question. Come to think of it, he didn’t even need to hear the question.

Was wondering if you had a few minutes to talk about the 2017 Walker Cup Team and…

“Best team ever,” Miller interrupted with a playful, knowing laugh. “You know that, don’t you? That’s the best team ever.”

Hang on, wouldn’t others, if given the chance, argue otherwise? There have been some loaded teams in the 101 years since the Walker Cup Match began, including ones with major champions and Hall of Famers. Captain Ed Updegraff’s 1975 team had Curtis Strange, Craig Stadler, Jerry Pate, Jay Haas, Bill Campbell and Vinny Giles and won by a touchdown at St. Andrews. Buddy Marucci was in charge of the 2007 team with Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Billy Horschel, Rickie Fowler and Chris Kirk that beat Rory McIlroy and Co. at Royal County Down. The first USA Team in 1922 boasted of Bob Jones, Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans, and all eight members won at least one U.S. Amateur. Surely, each of those teams could make the argument, right?

And now, as The Los Angeles Country Club, which hosted the 2017 Walker Cup, returns to the grand stage as the venue for this year’s U.S. Open, it’s worth having the conversation again.

Miller simply points to his roster – Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Will Zalatoris, Maverick McNealy, Cameron Champ and Stewart Hagestad among the bigger names on that 10-man team – and the final score.

The United States won, 19-7.

“It is absolutely the best team ever, and it’s not even close,” Miller said. “Look at the records. Look at how much they beat [Great Britain & Ireland] by. Look at their records as pros.”

Hagestad, one of the United States’ most accomplished amateur players ever, was a little more diplomatic.

“When you measure the best Walker Cup Team, do you want to go top to bottom?” Hagestad said. “Or do you want to go by most PGA Tour wins or most money earned? Because, if that’s the case, we can defer to the 1995 team. They had Tiger.

“Since the ball has changed, and in the Tiger Era, I think it can be a more apples-to-apples conversation. I think the comparison is very easily ’07 vs. ’17. I think you can sneaky kind of throw 2011 in there. That was a loaded team.”

For the record, the ’11 team, which lost, 14-12, had some rather familiar names as well – Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay, Harris English and Russell Henley.

Still, it’s hard to look past 2017 and a 12-point throttling, a margin topped by only one other group – the 1993 USA Team won by 14.

“Looking back now, the results speak for themselves,” Hagestad said. “I mean, just look at that team. It was crazy.”

And they knew it from the moment they teed it up in practice sessions.

“The best teams come together as a collective effort of individual energy and effort,” Hagestad said. “It was just a driven, incredibly talented group.”

They bonded over rounds at LACC, Bel-Air and Valley Club of Montecito, team dinners and a trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

“Since we were all nearly the same age, we had all known each other for some time,” Morikawa said. “Bonding-wise, we didn’t have to get to know each other. When the week came, it was just prepare as best as we can. Team dinners and traveling to different courses in the days leading to the actual matches were the most memorable to me, because it really got us to do everything together as a team.”

Obviously, it was quite the team.

Start first with Morikawa, who would go on to win the PGA Championship the first time he played in the event, a two-shot victory in 2020 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. A year later, while admittedly still learning how to play links golf, Morikawa won the British Open at Royal St. George’s in his first start in that major with another two-stroke triumph. Beyond that, he has already garnered six top-10 finishes in 12 major starts.

Hagestad foresaw what was to come from Morikawa the first time he saw him strike an iron shot.

“Collin is really the one that sticks out to me,” Hagestad said. “He was just so comfortable in his own skin.

“I remember thinking ‘How does this kid ever shoot above 67?” He doesn’t hit it super far, but his self-confidence level is so off the charts. It was so stress-free.”

Morikawa went 4-0 in the rout (as did McNealy and Doug Ghim), but says he wasn’t as calm as he seemed.

“There’s nothing like the Walker Cup,” said Morikawa. “I’ve been fortunate to represent the USA as a professional, but I still have not been more nervous than I was on the first tee at LACC.”

Since competing in the 2017 Walker Cup, Scottie Scheffler (right) has gone on to win six times on the PGA Tour, including the Masters and Players Championship, and rise to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Since competing in the 2017 Walker Cup, Scottie Scheffler (right) has gone on to win six times on the PGA Tour, including the Masters and Players Championship, and rise to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. (USGA/Chris Keane)

If he was nervous, he hid it well. Morikawa and Norman Xiong gave everyone an early look at what was to come. In the first match out in Saturday’s morning foursomes, the pair birdied the first four holes en route to winning eight of the first 10.

“Starting the first few matches really strong showed all of us that we had a strong team and didn’t want to let up,” Morikawa said. “At a certain point it wasn’t just about winning; it was to see how much we could win by and how many guys could go undefeated for the week.”

That first match never made it to the 12th tee.

“It was unbelievable. They just ran over them,” Miller said of Morikawa-Xiong’s tone-setting 8-and-7 win over GB&I’s Harry Ellis and Alfie Plant.

It wasn’t the first time something like this happened.

“One thing that stuck out was when Norman and Collin went out and played alternate shot [in an inter-squad match] and were 8 under through 15 holes,” McNealy said. “[The match ended] with Norman making an ace on 15. I also remember the quality of golf in the practice session. It felt like if you hit an approach shot to 15 feet, you were always going to be the first one putting.

“It was really fun. We didn’t want to just win the match, we wanted to be the first ones to win our matches,” he added. “The high level of play pushed us to be even better, and the atmosphere in the team room when it came to go-time was energized, focused and excited. We really fed off the red numbers we were putting up on the board.”

In addition to Morikawa, there was Scheffler, who had not yet become the Scottie Scheffler who spent much of 2022 as the No. 1 player in the world, who won four times in less than two months, who has a green jacket hanging in his closet. Back then, the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur champion was the world’s 42nd-ranked amateur.

“When I watch guys play, they hit certain shots,” Hagestad said. “Like Cameron [Champ] … I won’t ever have 135-mph swing speed. With Collin or Will, they go on these ball-striking sprees where they are able to have two or three tap-ins a round. With Scottie, I watch him play and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ But he just won four times on the PGA Tour. How did he get so good so quickly?”

Need more? Throw in Zalatoris, who would not announce himself to everyday golf fans until making a run at the 2021 Masters, where he finished second, one shot behind Hideki Matsuyama. But in 2017, it was clear to everyone who heard him make contact that this type of play was coming from the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion.

“If he wasn’t hitting the flagstick once every other round, he wasn’t hitting it great,” Hagestad said. “That’s alien-like stuff.”

The glue that kept the team together, though, was McNealy. He was part of the 2015 team, also captained by Miller. That team got trounced, 16½-9½, by GB&I at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in England.

“Maverick is a born leader,” Miller said. “He kept the guys focused, probably at times when I could not. What he learned from our first team was you can’t get caught up in all the pomp and circumstance. It’s still a golf tournament and you have to be ready to play.”

Though Hagestad was the “old man” of the team – 26 at the time, and at least five years older than everyone else on the roster – it was McNealy who commanded the team room.

“He’s just such a mature, calming presence,” Hagestad said. “That team was incredibly mature relative to some other ones, but the veteran leader was definitely Mav.”

While Hagestad has remained an amateur, his résumé speaks volumes. He has played in three Walker Cups and is hoping for one more in 2023 at St. Andrews. He won the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur, which earned him a spot in the 2017 Masters, where he made the cut, becoming the first invited Mid-Am champion to do so, finishing in a tie for 36th and earning low-amateur honors. In 2021, he won the Mid-Am again.

If Hagestad’s memory of the 2017 Walker Cup seems at times photographic, perhaps it’s because on top of earning his first berth on the team, the setting was special. It was a home game for Hagestad, who is a member at LACC.

“It was harder because I put a lot of expectations on myself,” said Hagestad, who went 1-1 during the Match. “There was a point Friday night, at the reception, where you had 1,500 members at LACC, and I felt like I knew a third of them. I remember walking with my mom toward the team room and being like, I need a break. I need to just go by myself or be with a teammate. I just needed to relax.”

He did. They did. After splitting the first morning’s foursomes, the USA went 6-2 in singles on Saturday afternoon, 3-1 in foursomes to open play on Sunday and closed by winning seven of the 10 singles matches.

“Looking back, everyone on that team knows that we had a special group,” Hagestad said. “It was led by a great captain who got all the distractions out of the way and let us go out and do what we needed to do. There was a clear mission of what we wanted to accomplish.”

So, let’s run through this one more time. Eight of the nine team members who turned pro have competed, and competed successfully, on the PGA Tour. Scheffler and Morikawa have three major titles between them. Zalatoris has a Tour win and has been runner-up in three of golf’s four majors. Champ has won three times on Tour. McNealy posted nine top 20s on the Tour in 2022.

“I knew everyone had the talent to make it, but seeing the quick success so many of us have had is hard to picture,” Morikawa said. “To see almost all of us on the PGA Tour, some with multiple wins and majors, is something no one other than ourselves saw happening.”

Back to the original question: Was the 2017 team the best ever?

“I know where my allegiance lies,” Hagestad said. But what about 1975 and 2007 and …

“They can ruminate over it,” Miller said. “All those guys who think they were the best team, they are the second-best team. There are a bunch of buddies out there who were captains who think their team was the best, and they are not even close.”

So how does the argument end?

“They don’t argue with me, because they all know I’m right,” Miller said.