Hugh Stuart reflects on famous 1971 Walker Cup triumph

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NOSTALIGA ain’t what it used to be. Forget dewy-eyed, wistful imaginings of yesteryear, the onset of coronavirus has ensured that the good old days were, in fact, only about 12 months ago when you could still stand cheek to wobbly jowl in the local and ask Davy if he fancied a swift half for the road.

Here in 2021, you just about have to consult Government guidelines to check if you’re allowed a walk down memory lane. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” said Hugh Stuart as he embarked on his own meander off into a bygone age.

That wander takes the celebrated Forres golfer back to 1971, when Great Britain & Ireland claimed a thrilling triumph over the USA on the Old Course to win the Walker Cup for the first time in 33 years. The GB&I boys were the talk of the Auld Grey Toun…and beyond. “After the win, I got a phone call to ask if I’d be a judge at the Miss Scotland event on the Saturday night in Glasgow but I had to get back up the road to prepare for the Amateur Championship,” said Stuart with a chuckle. The good old days indeed.

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In a captivating cup contest that was tighter than the current lockdown measures, Stuart and his team-mates battled their way to a 13-11 victory over a visiting side featuring talents like Lanny Wadkins and Tom Kite. GB&I were not short of talent either. With amateur luminaries such as Michael Bonallack, Charlie Green, George Macgregor, Roddy Carr and Rodney Foster, the hosts swept the opening foursomes 4-0. 

Stuart sat out that session but was thrust onto the frontline for the afternoon singles. He had been given plenty of food for thought. “I went down for breakfast in the hotel and all the guys who were playing in the first session were picking at their food and full of nerves,” recalled the 78-year-old. “I wasn’t playing so I wolfed in. It was different at lunchtime. They’d won 4-0 and were as high as kites. I was getting ready to play and I couldn’t eat a bloomin’ thing.”

The butterflies may have been birling but Stuart would show his class amid a fierce US retaliatory charge which should have been accompanied by a bugle call. He was the only GB&I winner in the afternoon as the US routed the session 6 ½ – 1 ½ to move ahead. 

Stuart would actually win all three of the matches he played over the two days, with his singles victory over Vinny Giles in the closing session sparking a stirring recovery from GB&I which led to them winning six of the eight ties – four on the last green and two on the 17th –  to record a narrow, hard-fought victory. “We drank well into the night,” said Stuart as the R&A’s jubilant libations flowed like the Swilcan Burn.

In a career of significant individual success, the collective conquest at the Walker Cup would be “the pinnacle” for Stuart. He won the Scottish Boys’ Championship in 1959 but, after indicating that he would turn professional, he lost his amateur status, was eventually re-instated and “had to start again.” 

By the early 1970s, he was one of the main movers and shakers in a lively amateur scene of great competition, characters and camaraderie. Stuart won the Scottish Amateur Championship in 1972 and, a year later, qualified for The Open at Troon.

He was taking the whole occasion in his stride until a certain somebody walked on to the practice putting green. “Jack Nicklaus appeared and suddenly my legs went to jelly,” he said of this brief encounter with golfing royalty. “I left and got to the first tee, took out the driver and couldn’t feel it. I said to my caddie, ‘give me the 3-wood instead’ but I couldn’t feel that either. I took out a 2-iron but hooked it way over the gallery. 

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“I was nervous at the Walker Cup. And I was nervous when I met my great idol, Arnold Palmer, when I was a spectator at The Masters in 1994. But Troon in 1973 was the most nervous I’d ever been. And no wonder. You went from your day job in the bank to playing in The Open.”

By 1976, Stuart’s competitive outings were winding down but his run to the final of the Scottish Amateur highlighted the quirks and curiosities of this unfathomable old game. “Because of work, the Scottish Amateur at St Andrews was the only event I played in that year,” he said. “I went in my caravan for a holiday more than anything. I ended up getting to the final. It’s funny how golf works.”

This year’s Walker Cup is pencilled in for May at Seminole in Florida. “As it’s 50 years since our win, I’d like to go but it’s all up in the air with the virus,” he sighed.

Life was much simpler in those good old days wasn’t it?

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