By John Gleason
From The Golf Journal Archives - A Great Amateur: George Herbert Walker
Oct 22, 2010
(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)
George Herbert Walker wasn’t an outstanding player, but his contributions to amateur golf stand as tall as the Walker Cup that he donated to international competition. One only had to understand his commitment to fair play and integrity and his insistence that golf was a gentlemen’s game, to fully comprehend his devotion.
A year after his presidency of the USGA, he oversaw the 1921 U.S. Amateur Championship played at his home course, St. Louis Country Club.
In the third round, Bobby Jones faced Willie Hunter, a post office clerk from Kent, England, who had won the British Amateur earlier that summer. The match was tight throughout but Jones, 19 at the time, was 1 down as the two played the 35th hole.
Attempting his shot at the green, Jones sculled his shot and the ball scooted across the putting surface. In anger, he flung his club. It bounded along the ground and struck a woman in the leg, surprising, but not injuring her.
Jones, disturbed and embarrassed, lost the hole and the match. When he returned home, he received a letter from Walker, who matter-of-factly wrote, “You will never play in a USGA event again unless you can control your temper.” Jones responded humbly and promised to win his battle with his emotions.
Some years later, Walker encountered Jones in a gallery. Walker approached Jones, then put his arm around Bobby and confided, “Bob, I think I admire you more than any man I know.”
BORN INTO A WEALTHY St. Louis family, George Herbert Walker’s father owned the largest wholesale drygoods manufacturing firm in the Midwest. George was sent to Stonyhurst, an outstanding English prep school located north of Blackburn on the Lancashire coast. There he excelled in boxing, rugby and soccer.
He attended the University of Edinburgh, where he studied pre-med for one year, but he abandoned that pursuit and eventually returned to St. Louis. He founded the banking and investment firm of G.H. Walker & Co., and became a member at St. Louis Country Club, where he played off a 5 handicap and captained the club’s championship polo team. Playing on that squad was Dwight Filley Davis, a ranking American tennis star who in 1900 became the donor of the Davis Cup for men’s international tennis competition.
After the golf lull that ensued due to World War I, Walker became president of the USGA in 1920. Today it is customary for those who ascend to the USGA presidency to first serve as a member of the Executive Committee and as a lower-ranking officer, but that was not the case in the early years of the Association. Walker’s only time on the USGA Executive Committee came in 1920 – the anomalistic one year he served in that capacity. Howard F. Whitney, who succeeded Walker as USGA president, Melvin A. Traylor, who served in 1928, and Prescott Bush (1935) held office for one year; every president since has served two one-year terms.
In an effort to obtain more conformity in the Rules of Golf between the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the two governing bodies, Walker appointed a committee that sailed to St. Andrews. While the business conferences were being conducted, the visiting Americans had the opportunity to play many fine British links, including Muirfield when the club was the site of that year’s British Amateur. Although Walker lost in the first round, he was impressed with the quality and competitive spirit of postwar British golf. Walker’s belief that international competition would provide many moments of goodwill among nations was reinforced.
Months after the Americans returned, at a meeting of the USGA Executive Committee at the Links Club in Manhattan just four days before Christmas, Walker proposed a plan in which all golfing countries would gather and compete in a team championship. He even offered to donate the trophy – the United States Golf Association International Challenge Trophy – that would be awarded to the victorious team.
The working press reported the proposal but, finding the name rather cumbersome, began to refer to the trophy as the Walker Cup. The name caught on immediately, much to Walker’s chagrin.
Invitations to send a team to America to compete for the trophy were issued to golfing nations, but because most countries were still involved in rebuilding from the war, no country accepted the invitation. Yet the quest for international team competition remained one of Walker’s foremost goals. Here on the home continent, the USGA had already accepted an invitation of the Royal Canadian Golf Association to play a team match against Canada, with a return match scheduled in the U.S.
In the spring of 1921, William C. Fownes Jr., who captained both U.S. teams in the matches against Canada, led a third U.S. team, one that defeated a group of British players at Royal Liverpool the day before the start of the British Amateur. Despite losing to the Americans by 9-3, the Britons saw more significance in the match than the final score.
The bonds of friendships were drawn even closer as the American team members competed in the British Amateur. Cyril Tolley defeated Jesse Guilford, and Jones, playing in his first British, was beaten rather soundly by Allen Graham. Freddie Wright of Boston, however, reached the quarterfinals before falling to aging Bernard Darwin at the 19th hole.
The seeds of Walker’s dream were beginning to bear fruit, and in the spring of 1922 the vision was realized when the R&A announced that it would send an official team to America to compete for the Walker Cup. (It would be another five years before the start of the men’s pro-Amateur professional counterpart named in honor of Samuel Ryder.)
At its annual meeting, the USGA elected to charge a small spectator admission fee at the U.S. Amateur to help defray the expenses of entertaining the visiting team when here in America, or those incurred in sending the U.S. team abroad.
The landmark golf course upon which the inaugural match was played was the National Golf Links of America, situated on the far reaches of Long Island overlooking Peconic Bay.
At the time of the match, Walker had already retired as president of the USGA, but his efforts to promote international amateur golf must have garnered triumphant satisfaction as he watched the first foursomes match play away and walk off the first tee.
Leading off for the visiting team was Tolley, an Oxford University player who had been a German prisoner of war for 13 months, and Darwin, then 46, who had volunteered to replace Robert Harris, the British captain who had fallen ill. They were pitted against two former New England caddies: Francis Ouimet, the hero from the 1913 Open at The Country Club and every bit one of golf’s grandest goodwill ambassadors – he was the R&A’s first non-British golfer to play himself in as its Honourable Captain in 1951 – and Guilford, America’s longest hitter.
If National’s links had somewhat of an accommodating flavor for the British, they failed to capitalize on the advantage. Ouimet and Guilford won the first match quite easily, 8 and 7, and the United States took eight of the first nine matches en route to a comfortable 8-4 victory.
“It is my guess that we would have lost every match had we played in that event before the war,” wrote Chick Evans, a member of that inaugural U.S. Team in, Midwest Golfer, “for at that time they were accustomed to defeat us rather consistently. It is only by our play with British golfers that we are able to realize how rapid has been the progress of the game in America. Golfers in Great Britain have been playing the game for hundreds of years, they have taught its gospel all over the world, but in scarcely three decades we have developed players, equipment and courses that have put us beyond them.”
The domination of the Walker Cup by the U.S. has been present since that historic match in 1922. The U.S. won the first nine times the matches were played, lost in 1938, then won nine in a row again before tieing the 1965 competition at Baltimore Country Club’s Five Farms Course.
WHEN W. AVERELL Harriman, the railroad tycoon, decided to open a Wall Street investment firm, he persuaded George Walker to come to New York City to become the founding partner. With his wife and their six children, the Walkers settled into a large home directly behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Soon Walker became a member of both the National Golf Links of America and Deepdale Golf Club, where his family members often joined him on the course.
Placing the same importance on education as his father had done, Walker provided his four sons with the very best. All four boys attended The Hill School, a well-known prep school in Pennsylvania, and Yale University.
The Walker brothers had two older sisters, Nancy, who died earlier this year at the age of 97, and Dorothy. When she married Prescott Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut who later became a president of the USGA, Dorothy was undecided what name to give their second son in honor of her father. Consequently, he was christened George Herbert Walker Bush, who in 1988 was elected the 41st President of the United States. Like his maternal grandfather, Bush was an avid golfer. And he was one who did not cater to the leisurely pace of the game; he and three others once cruised 18 holes in just over 100 minutes.
On June 24, 1953, Walker died at the age of 79. Since his original vision, golf competition has crisscrossed international borders with incessant regularity. The Ryder Cup began in 1927, and five years after that a competition for women amateurs in the U.S. and the British Isles, the Curtis Cup, commenced. A men’s and women’s World Amateur competition was initiated, as was the Solheim Cup for women professionals and the newly founded Palmer Cup for collegians.
The hopes and dreams of George Herbert Walker, it is safe to assume, have blossomed even beyond his grand expectations.
Walker at one time played off a 5 handicap at St. Louis Country Club. (USGA Museum)
Walker (right), as the USGA’s president, had the honor of awarding the Havemayer Trophy in 1920 to U.S. Amateur winner Charles (Chick) Evans. (USGA Museum)
Walker (left) joined Philemon Dickenson and J. Ford Johnson Jr. in the 1933 Mid-Ocean Invitational in Bermuda. (USGA Museum)