9 Sep – CHARLEVOIX – The spirit of competition and the spirit of friendship were alive and well at Belvedere Golf Club.
Golfers from the United States and Europe battled for three days, culminating in Friday’s final round of single match play, with Team USA winning and bringing the Hickory Grail Cup back to American soil for the first time since 2015. Team USA held a 6-3 overall lead after 2015, but Team USA Europe won the last three Grail Cups to even things up at 6-6.
“Our team played well and played with class,” said Team USA captain Mark Wehring. “We competed in a very humble and understated way, so it was great to see everyone out on the field enjoying themselves. At the end of the day, having fun and competitive games was all we wanted. We’ll look back on this and the time we spent together is even more special because we came out on top.”
The weather was the talk of the tournament as temperatures reached triple digits during Tuesday’s practice round and opening ceremonies, followed by thunderstorms on Wednesday that delayed some play until Thursday, which was cloudy and cool.
However, Mother Nature cooperated on Friday and provided a picturesque day with a bright, warm sun and a vivid blue sky in northern Michigan.
“That’s the way it has to be,” Team USA golfer and Belvedere club professional Marty Joy said Friday after referring to the weather in the first few days as “Willard Scott’s nightmare.”
The Grail Cup, which is the oldest international Hickory golf competition, consists of two teams of 12 players who battle through three rounds.
The difference, however, is that the three rounds of golf are played with golf clubs with antique shafts made from Hickory wood with clubheads dating back to 1935 or earlier. Nothing is available to the competitors that was not available to golfers in the 1920s and 30s, except the golf balls. Golfers were also dressed in the standard attire of the time period, including knickers and high socks along with matching shirts, jackets, ties and hats.
“It is important that we preserve the history of the game,” said Team Europe captain Jonas Fack. “We’ve got to make sure it doesn’t get changed into something else, which I feel has been going on for a while now. All of us here are playing golf the way it was meant to be. We’ve got to keep at it, so more playing the game the right way.”
Team USA led lead-to-lead in the three-day event to break the tie and take the overall advantage 7-6. After Wednesday’s alternate shot action was concluded Thursday morning, the scoreboard was in favor of Team USA 5.5 to 1.5. Team USA won 4 to 3 during Thursday afternoon’s session of best-ball golf, then the Americans pulled away during Friday’s match play to win the Grail Cup 18 to 10.
Picking up match play singles victories for Team USA were Rick Woeckener, Jason Kronenberger, Breck Speed, Joey Piatek, Peter Flory, Marty Joy, Matt Dodds and John Crow Miller.
Team Europe got victories from Nigel Notley, Ingvar Ritzen, Erik Brandstrom, Ulf Jageus and Bjørn Petersson. Ross Hays and Olle Dahlgren finished their 18 holes all square.
“We are celebrating the history of golf by recreating competitions from a hundred years ago,” said Team USA Secretary John Crow Miller. “We make a hard game harder, sure. But we make a fun game more fun. And that’s really the essence of the Hickory Grail.”
Nigel Notley, vice-captain of Team Europe, said the Hickory Grail keeps the purity of golf front and center as modern golf clubs become bigger, more powerful and more forgiving.
“Modern clubs have come along and kind of canceled out a lot of the skills,” said Notley, who has played Hickory-style golf for nearly a quarter century. “As soon as you pick up a Hickory club and hit a ball down the middle, you just know it was a clean shot. There’s nothing in the clubhead that’s going to correct a bad shot; so you either hit it in the clubhead. the middle or you’re dead. It’s the skill factor that makes you walk away smiling.”
And it’s not just a good shot that brings a smile. The company on the course helps more than that.
“We’re just happy when we see each other again,” Notley said. “Of course they’re going to make you putt from two and a half feet; but if you hit a good shot, you’re going to be congratulated. It’s intense, but it’s nice.”
Ross Hays, Team USA’s vice-captain, called golf the “greatest friendship-making machine ever invented.”
“We all have so many friends that we’ve met from across the pond and around here in the US. They’re not just acquaintances. They’re good friends and we wouldn’t have known them if it weren’t for golf,” Hays said.
Crow Miller said the friendships made through the Grail Cup are “unprecedented.”
“It’s not some kind of battle royale like the Ryder Cup, where people are shouting ‘USA! USA! USA!’ and ‘Go in the hole!’ and ‘You man!’ It’s completely different,” he says. “It’s actually a Philadelphia Eagles night games with free beer and our games are so much more focused on the truth of match play and fierce competition in the nicest sense. We are proud to represent it every other year.”
And in two years, the Hickory Grail is back Sweden for the first time since 2009. Something Fack is quite happy about.
“I feel very good about it,” Fack said. “It’s going to be played in my home country at my home golf club, so I’m really looking forward to it.”