Even a Phil Mickelson-led US team couldn't stop them. Mark Townsend gets the inside story on THAT 1989 Walker Cup win
Eoghan O’Connell only played in one Walker Cup but his contribution to GB&I’s first win on American soil in 1989 was astonishing.
On the opening day the Cork native only needed 27 holes at Peachtree to secure two points as Geoff Marks’ side opened up an unlikely three-point lead.
This didn’t happen in Walker Cups, where young GB&I debutants were not expected to register any points. We had never won in the States – there had been a tie 24 years previously but otherwise it had been a succession of heavy defeats.
Even on home soil, GB&I had only won twice since the competition began in 1922.
What seemed likely was that the Americans would quickly turn it around on the second morning.
Not so. Marks’ men dropped just half a point in the four foursomes. So ‘just’ the one and a half points required from the eight singles and a place in the history books…
We didn’t win a singles match, but three key halves, including O’Connell against Phil Mickelson and a thriller in the last match out, was enough to get the job done.
Twelve years later it happened again as Peter McEvoy came up against Danny Yates, both players at Peachtree, and a star-studded visiting side romped home.
By this time O’Connell was done with the European Tour, a wrist injury forcing him into retirement before he was 30.
Hence a move to the other side of the Atlantic to carve out a new career courtesy of a variety of interesting and varied roles which included running the Fox Club in Florida and setting up Global Golf Links, a travel company which organises trips to Ireland and Scotland, as well as a stint for Chubby Chandler’s ISM. Now he works in property in New York.
But, for now, let’s revisit 1989 and that memorable win…
How confident were you as a team going into the 1989 matches?
We had won the Eisenhower Trophy in Sweden the year. That was Peter McEvoy, Garth McGimpsey, Jim Milligan and myself. And Peter had won the individual.
Plus we had Russell Claydon who had lost a play-off to Greg Norman in the Australian Masters and Stephen Dodd who had just won the Amateur at Birkdale.
So we were quite confident. On paper they looked better but we had depth. A lot of our guys hadn’t played on Bermuda grass so that took some getting used to.
How strong were the Americans?
I knew most of their team as I had played college golf there. Everyone knew Jay Sigel, David Eger was a very good player, Eric Meeks had won the US Amateur the previous year, there was Robert Gamez who holed a 7-iron at the 18th to win at Bay Hill the following year and a 19-year-old called Phil Mickelson.
I still felt that we had a good chance but I was young and stupid at the time.
You partnered Peter McEvoy in both foursomes, how did that come about?
We played together in the St Andrews Trophy and had done well and Peter said to our captain Geoff Marks that we were a good pairing. Peter did his best to mentor me and took me under his wing a bit to make the team.
These days it’s a lot of younger kids playing, then they turn pro and sometimes win immediately.
Back then we peaked a lot later, maybe coming through at 27. The game is a lot different now. But the Walker Cup was still the pinnacle of your amateur career.
What was that final day like?
The attitude was to continue winning matches and then the tide turned, as it does in sport, and it happens fast. We never really had to do too much maths as we were so far ahead. Then I looked at a scoreboard at the 12th and we were down in every match!
So I turned to Geoff and said, ‘Give me the scoop here.’
He said it looked like if I were to win we would win, if I tied we would tie and, if I lost, then we lost! So that made it pretty clear in my head but I wanted to know.
And I was one down at the time to Mickelson. The crowd and mojo was going their way but I had played well the previous rounds so that really helped under pressure.
I won the 17th and Phil made a 10-footer at the last for par and he gave me a two-and-a-half footer which I was quite surprised that he gave me.
So it was then down to Jim Milligan against Jay Sigel, the career amateur and two-time US Amateur champion…
Yes, we grabbed a cart and Jim was 2-down with four to play. He holed a big putt at 15, birdied 16 and then chipped in on 17. We were walking down the last and I joked ‘don’t miss it right here’ and he got it done which is so hard when the Americans were excited about pulling off such a big comeback.
I still see Jay and he doesn’t like talking about it now. He hadn’t played well that week, Peter and I beat him on 13.
And, for the first time, we had won in the States?
If we played the team of 12 years later, with Luke Donald and Paul Casey, then we would probably need two shots a side. We didn’t go on to do what we wanted as pros, most of us anyway, but had we lost it would have been a huge disappointment.
We were a strong team and we weren’t surprised that we had won. We were surprised though that we had got so far ahead but we didn’t think of ourselves as underdogs.
What was it like playing a teenage Mickelson?
I knew Phil from college golf and we got on well, he was a kid and fairly green but you knew he was going to be so good.
I saw his dad in the clubhouse at Augusta when he was coming down the back nine and thanked him for giving me that putt as there was a good chance I would have missed it!
And you nearly made a playing return 18 years later but for the American side?
Well, kind of. I got my amateur status back in 2005 and the American captain Buddy Marucci said to his counterpart Colin Dalgleish that I was playing well and that I would be on his radar as I would be eligible to play for the States.
I went to the Irish Amateur and saw Rory McIlroy hit balls and immediately thought ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’.
Their games were so different, they hit it so far. Even if I had won the Irish I thought I should never be on the team. I hadn’t spent too much time playing with younger golfers having always played in a lot of Mid Am events and I couldn’t believe how far they hit it.
I would never have played for the US team but I was on their radar. As it transpired, I missed the cut and didn’t play in that many events. The plan was never to play a full schedule to get in the Walker Cup. I have five kids so I was busy enough not to take golf too seriously.
Do you still have an interest in the matches?
I was at National and Merion and it is still a phenomenal event to go to and, if you like golf, it is the best event to attend. At Merion I was watching the likes of Rickie Fowler and Peter Uihlein from the front row.
I hope that it stays that way. Having 10,000 people is fine, any more and you have to rope it off. I love it, once you have played in the Walker Cup you will always be a Walker Cup player.