Holtgrieve praises Palmetto Am course, field

When the Walker Cup is staged Sept. 7-8 at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., U.S. team captain Jim Holtgrieve will have two priorities: helping create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for his 10-man squad of playing for flag and country — and, oh yeah, winning.

An amateur golf traditionalist, the St. Louis resident, 65, owns a Walker Cup resume unrivaled on this side of the Atlantic — three-time competitor (U.S. wins in 1979, 1981 and 1983), 2011 captain — plus a victory in the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship in 1981 and five Masters’ invitations. The Walker Cup’s biennial competition between the U.S. and Great Britain-Ireland, he says, represents — or should — everything good and pure about his beloved game.

Holtgrieve — who was in Aiken on Tuesday as speaker at a pre-tournament dinner for the 38th Palmetto Amateur Tournament — wants to win, too. While his experience two years ago at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland “proved so much more to me about the (event’s) real meaning,” it still was the Americans’ sixth loss in the past 12 meetings; the U.S. leads the series 34-8-1.

“I’m grateful the USGA granted me a significant ‘mulligan,’ ” he said, laughing.

From now until final selections in August after the U.S. Amateur, Holtgrieve largely will live out of a suitcase, crisscrossing the nation to watch potential team members compete in a long summer of top amateur events (plus the U.S. Open), a stretch that began at the NCAA Championships in Atlanta and continues at the Palmetto Amateur.

A national member of Palmetto Golf Club (he joined after visiting the club during his appearance in the 1984 Masters), Holtgrieve will do some limited pre-tournament scouting — a conflict will force him to leave Wednesday, the morning of the first round — while viewing what officials say is their strongest field in years.

“I’m sorry I’m not playing, but the timing’s not right,” he said. “I’ll try to see a few players, and I always stress that if you play at Palmetto, it’s a good tournament and challenging golf course.”

He says he doesn’t need to be there to know what competitors will face. While Holtgrieve ranks the Palmetto Amateur just below the nation’s top-tier amateur events, he expects the short-but-testing 1892 design to be excellent preparation for what his squad will face in September.

“In my mind, (the Palmetto Am) has weight because the golf course makes you think,” he said. “Some events with stronger fields, you can hit it all over the place. Palmetto challenges you to manage your game and be patient, think about what’s going on.

“That’s what (players) will need at National Golf Links, too. The two (courses) are somewhat similar, not real long (Palmetto measures about 6,700 yards, National Golf Links 6,800-6,900) and balls roll out around the greens. Palmetto is, for me, a neat little test for what they can expect at National Links.”