The Unbeatable 1959 USA Walker Cup Team

 

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The best USA Walker Cup team ever? A case can be made looking at the lineup. (USGA Museum)

 

By Kaye Kessler

It was the best of two golf worlds – the USA and Great Britain and Ireland – back in the very good old days, when most of golf’s finest amateurs lived the dream of Bob Jones and were dedicated to remaining amateurs. Back when a Walker Cup selection was to die for and on a par with the professionals’ prestigious Ryder Cup.

Those were the golden days of Walker Cup competition, and the golden anniversary of perhaps the most golden of all USA Teams will be celebrated with the 2009 Walker Cup Match at storied Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.

Names, faces, places and even the competition has changed drastically in the 50 years since that 1959 USA Team scored a resounding 9-3 victory at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield, Scotland.

Jack Nicklaus – remember him, a rookie on that team? – has come and gone, unbelievably. Likewise Deane Beman, a player of some repute and later a PGA Tour Commissioner who became a master at handling dispute. Today’s golf fans have little trouble remembering them. But many of the seven others on that great 1959 team aren’t apt to ring the memory bells of today’s golfing generation.

Just to stir the embers of what many, this writer included, believe to be the best-ever USA Walker Cup Team and to roil the argumentative juices of the naysayers, take a quick look at that 1959  USA Team that all but wrapped up the trophy the first day by sweeping the four foursome matches:

Charles R. “Charlie” Coe, a 35-year-old Oklahoma oil broker, was playing captain on his fourth of six Walker Cup Teams after having served as non-playing captain in 1957. His record as a lifetime amateur is a book highlighted by two U.S. Amateur titles, a Masters amateur scoring record (281) in 1961, when he finished second, one stroke back of winner Gary Player, ad infinitum.

E. Harvie Ward Jr., 33, was born to golf in North Carolina, honed his game in California, won the 1948 North & South Amateur, the 1949 NCAA Division I Championship, the 1952 British Amateur, the 1955 and 1956 U.S. Amateurs, was a three-time low amateur in the Masters and was playing his third and final Walker Cup, largely because he lost interest in amateur golf after he was suspended by the USGA in 1957 for a year for accepting expense money from his employer, Eddie Lowery, who had been Francis Ouimet’s caddie when Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open.

William “Bill” Hyndman III, 43, was a lanky, fidgety Philadelphia insurance man playing his second of five Walker Cups. A masterful match player, his birdie on the 71st hole – the famed St. Andrews “Road Hole” – won the 1958 Americas Cup for the USA.

 William J. “Billy Joe” Patton, 37, an effervescent North Carolina lumber broker and Wake Forest grad in his third of five Walker Cups (he also was non-playing captain in 1969), owned a great amateur record in Masters with a lengthy string of amateur victories in the North & South, Americas Cups and World Amateurs. Billy Joe was a tremendous gallery favorite.

Dr. Frank “Bud” Taylor Jr., 41, even-tempered dentist from Pomona, Calif., twice California amateur champ and finalist in the 1957 U.S. Amateur, was playing his second of three consecutive Walker Cups.

Then along came the four kids to provide the spizerinctum that marked this 1959 team as one of a kind --- Nicklaus, the 19-year-old Ohio State freshman already fitted for greatness; 21-year-old University of Maryland midget marvel Beman, 22-year-old Georgian and University of Florida standout Thomas D.Tommy” Aaron, who had lost to Coe in the 1958 U.S. Amateur finals and would later add the 1973 Masters to a solid PGA Tour resume, and finally 23-year-old H. Ward Wettlaufer, a beefy Buffalo, N.Y., native out of Hamilton College who was sensational in his only Cup appearance.

What this ninesome did to distinguish themselves and extinguish the hopes of a seasoned and very talented team from across the pond that had put up a frightfully strong show two years before in Minneapolis was probably all wrapped up the first day. British writers, in fact, had felt the hosts had a decided edge for a number of reasons.

Mostly, they questioned how the four young Americans would handle the very testy Muirfield course, deemed much more severe than St. Andrews and made even more difficult from a long drought leading up to the competition that had made the course faster than an airplane runway.

Perhaps the most focused of the group was Nicklaus, the youngest, who had been motivated on Walker Cup play for nearly seven years since meeting Jones, the idol introduced to him by his father, Charlie.

Charlie helped Jack set up an impressive 1958 schedule that bore fruit. He qualified for and made the cut at the U.S. Open at Southern Hills; he won the vaunted Trans-Mississippi at Prairie Dunes; drew Ward in the second round of the U.S. Amateur at Olympic and lost on the 18th hole only because the uncanny Ward sank putts from outside six feet on 12 greens. Finally, he played his first PGA Tour event on an invite, shooting 66-67-76-68 at Firestone to finish 14th in the Rubber City Open. Eyes haven’t gone off Nicklaus since, even in total retirement.

There was an interesting and humorous twist to the 1959 event that may have relieved any tension and set the tone, particularly for the young bloods, and it came from the troubled Harvie Ward. His enthusiasm for the game was at low tide from the suspension, and his timing was a worry to the whole team, but it did not affect his fervor for Walker Cup play or his great sense of humor. He remained the life of the party as the team stayed together at the famed Greywalls. A couple of days before the Match, Harvie brought the walls down when he dreamed up a set of nicknames for all the players that stuck with some long afterward.

The steely eyed Captain Coe became “Wyatt Earp.” Patton was “White Lightning,” Hyndman was “Praying Mantis,” Taylor turned into “Bulldog Drummond,” Aaron was “Cotton Mouth,” Wettlaufer “Baby Fats,” Nicklaus “Snow White,” Beman a natural “B-B Eyes,” while Ward dubbed himself “E. Mickey Mouse.”

Unquestionably it introduced a magnum of fun, if not wisdom, to practices. Whether it inspired others is a moot point, but it enlivened Ward, who more than made up for poor timing with other clubs by continuing to be a magician with the putter.

Doubtless there were several keys as Friday’s opening foursomes got underway in warm, breezy weather before more than 10,000 spectators, and Coe’s pairings in the second match may have been a key. He paired Hyndman and Aaron, who drew the top host team of Joe Carr and Guy Wolstenholme and achieved stunning results. Hyndman and Aaron meshed marvelously and prevailed, 1 up, when they came back with a solid 2-under-par 33 on the afternoon’s back nine.

Coe and Patton, meantime, had the only rout in the third match, taking out Michael Bonallack and Arthur Perowne, 9 and 8, while the other two matches remained nail-biters. Ward and Taylor were 2 down after the morning 18 and were hanging on down the stretch against R. Reid Jack and Douglas Sewell thanks to Ward’s wizardry with the putter. Ward holed his putt from 30 feet on the 26th hole, from 25 feet on the 31st, from 40 on the 33rd and then with the match all square coming to the last hole, Ward nailed the winning birdie putt from 30 feet.

Nicklaus and Wettlaufer, the final pairing, were having early miseries with Michael Lunt and Alec Shepperson, sitting 4 down early before rallying to win the final three holes and trail only 1 down at lunch.

It wasn’t until Wettlaufer drilled a long iron to four feet on the 31st hole that the Americans took the lead they would hang onto for a 2-and-1 triumph that completed the 4-0 whitewash in foursomes and cut the heart out of their hosts.

Ward and Wettlaufer actually deserved the big huzzahs as they stayed stunning in Saturday’s concluding 36-hole singles. Wettlaufer threw a morning 69 at Lunt and eventually prevailed, 6 and 5, while Ward stayed torrid to torch Wolstenholme, 9 and 8.

Nicklaus romped over Dickson Smith after a morning 70 left him 5 up, and three quick birdies to open the afternoon round had him 8 up and coasting to a 5-and-4 win.

Taylor, meantime, graciously offered his spot in singles to Beman, who had sat out foursomes, and Beman rallied with a 2-up victory over Bonallack, who had put a world of hurt on the young American with a morning 69. Hyndman’s handy 4-and-3 triumph over Sewell gave the USA its five singles points for the final 9-3 winning margin. The Coe-Patton duo so dominant in foursomes dropped singles points, Coe bowing, 2 and 1, to Carr and Patton, 5 and 3, to Jack. Aaron lost to Shepperson, 2 and 1.

Adding a little glitter to the premise that the 1959 USA Team was the best ever is an examination of their overall records in Walker Cup play.

In six appearances, Coe had seven wins, four losses and two ties. Hyndman in five events showed a solid six wins, one loss and two ties, while Patton was even more impressive with 11 triumphs and three losses. Two of the veterans were unbeatable in three appearances, Ward 6-0 and Taylor 4-0, while Beman, playing four times before turning pro, was 7-2-2.

Nicklaus also was unbeaten in both foursomes and singles in the 1959 and 1961 Matches before scoring his first professional win in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. And everybody, even Tiger Woods, knows the rest of the Golden Bear’s story. The lifetime Walker Cup record for the 1959 contestants was a sterling 48 wins, just 11 losses and six ties.

It’s worth noting that after the 1959 Walker Cup Match at Muirfield, most of the USA Team stayed for the British Amateur, where Beman prevailed, 3 and 2, in the final over Hyndman, who had taken out Nicklaus, 4 and 3, in the quarterfinals. Back home later that summer, Nicklaus dethroned Coe, 1 up, at The Broadmoor for his first of two U.S. Amateur titles.

A recipient of the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award, Kaye Kessler has covered championship golf since the 1950 PGA in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He has written about Jack Nicklaus since the early 1950s.

 

 

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