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Walker Cup creates key experience

The Walker Cup is very precious to the history of golf in America. The first of these matches between the best amateurs from the United States and Great Britain and Ireland were held in 1922 at the National Golf Links of America on the east end of Long Island, in Southampton, N.Y.

The matches are back at the National for the first time since then, when the U.S. won 8-4.

Over the years, the Walker Cup's slightly younger sibling, the Ryder Cup, has been the most vibrant symbol of match play in the world.

The format is nearly synonymous with the Ryder Cup. Yet for many of the best players over the last 90 years, the Walker Cup has been their first beam of light in the direction of international match play.

On Monday, as he pondered the prospects of being selected for the Presidents Cup team after shooting a 62 in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth looked back to the time in 2011 when he was a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland.

"It was the greatest honor that I have had in golf to this day," he said.

He might feel differently about that now after the call from Couples on Wednesday, but the matches at Royal Aberdeen, where he went 2-0-1, were very important experiences for him that will serve him well at Muirfield Village in the Presidents Cup.

"I played some of the best golf of my life and it was cool for it to happen at that time," Spieth said. "Having played alternate shot I'm prepared for that format. But obviously this is on a higher level. But any experience in that format is helpful because you don't get it very often.'

In July 2011, two of Spieth's teammates on that Walker Cup team, Harris English and Russell Henley, won events as amateurs on the Web.com Tour. English and Henley both could have turned pro that summer after graduating from Georgia, but they chose to remain as amateurs so they might have a chance to qualify for the U.S. Walker Cup team.

Peter Uihlein was a year removed from winning the U.S. Amateur and on his way to a pro career, but the chance to compete for his country at Royal Aberdeen was too attractive to miss.

In 2010, Spieth had made the cut as a 16-year-old at the Byron Nelson. The Walker Cup was firmly in his sights. An invitation from Fred Couples to be a part of the 2013 Presidents Cup was three years away.

"For Russell, Peter and I, the Walker Cup was our last hurrah as an amateurs," English said. "We could have easily turned pro, but we wanted to represent our country."

In 2013, these four players took their first wins on the major tours: Henley, English and Spieth on the PGA Tour and Uihlein on the European Tour.

"The best of the best play in the Walker Cup," English said. "Just look at what the players off my team have done this year."

Yet in September 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the hijacking of passenger airlines and the ensuing tragedy in the U.S., these four young men were Walker Cup teammates in Scotland.

It had been a dream of English's to make one of these teams since his parents took him as a 12-year-old to see the 2001 matches at the Ocean Forest Golf Course in Sea Island, Ga. He was mesmerized by the excitement and patriotism expressed by the U.S. and Great Britain and Ireland fans. He got to watch players he would get to know much later on tour such as Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, Erik Compton and Lucas Glover.

The matches in Aberdeen changed English's life. "It was the first everything," he said. "I had never played for my country or been to Europe.

"It was very nerve-racking but very fun. It was probably the coolest golf tournament that I have ever played in."

No player soon forgets his time in the Walker Cup. It's the closest thing to the Ryder Cup and the most people they will play in front of until they turn pro.

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have gone on to great success as pros, and they have now amassed more war stories from the tour than they did as amateurs. They remember well the 2007 matches at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland.

"The Walker Cup was a huge deal to me," McIlroy said. "For two years of amateur golf that's what I wanted to do. I missed out in 2005 and I really wanted to make the team in 2007 because it was a home game for me in Northern Ireland. I had been waiting for it so long. You realize that it might be your one and only ever Walker Cup and you get so up for it.

"And I really wanted that to be my last amateur event before I turned pro. I had a great time and I got to know some of the guys really well. That's probably the thing that I took most from it. It was actually able to build relationships. I got to know a lot the American guys like Dustin, Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler."

In the morning foursomes on the first day, McIlroy and Jonathan Caldwell met Dustin Johnson and Colt Knost. McIlroy remembers Johnson hitting his drive over 400 yards.

"I was pretty nervous on that first tee in Northern Ireland," said Johnson, whose team halved the match with McIlroy and Caldwell. "The Walker Cup is comparable to the Ryder Cup on the amateur level. It's just way more people at the Presidents and the Ryder Cup.

"The gamesmanship between the players is there, but it's a little different because you really don't know the guys from the other team. In the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup you know most of the guys from the tour."

The 10 players on each team assembled at this C.B. MacDonald masterpiece off the Peconic Bay this week are playing for something greater than themselves. There is perhaps no better endeavor for the athlete than to play for his or her country.

And out of the collective achievement of the team comes the personal satisfaction of the individual successfully making a contribution to the group.

Spieth learned these truths at Royal Aberdeen and he's very pleased to share them with his new Presidents Cup teammates, who also got many of their first lessons on the virtues of international match play from the Walker Cup.