Walker Cup venue a true golfing gem

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Never mind that the 44th Walker Cup matches were pretty much settled on Saturday with the U.S. carrying a comfortable 8-4 lead over Great Britain and Ireland. The Sunday foursomes and singles afforded spectators and TV viewers another opportunity to experience the beauty of the National Golf Links of America.

The U.S. might have been the big winners on Sunday with a 17-9 victory to reclaim the cup, but this C.B. Macdonald links-style course was the real hero of this biennial event.

In June, the USGA took the U.S. Open back to Merion's East Course, a classic Hugh Wilson design in suburban Philadelphia. To give that venue a fighting chance against today's ball and equipment technology, the USGA made Merion an unimaginative and overly difficult course.

The National Golf Links is essentially the same track it was when it first hosted the Walker Cup in 1922. That's the wonderful thing about golf: There is the opportunity to experience a layout in much the same way as golfers did generations earlier.

On Sunday afternoon, as a nice breeze off the Peconic Bay settled over the National and the matches were played out long after 35-year-old Nathan Smith had clinched the cup for the U.S., I -- like so many people -- simply tried to savor every moment on this course. It might be our last chance to walk around one of America's first links-style courses when it opened for play in 1909.

The prospect of National closing itself off to the world for another 90 years is one of the cruelties of this very elite bastion of private clubs.

Championships and guests come to the National Golf Links at the discretion of its members and officers. Routinely, some of the most famed clubs in the world opt not to hold major championships for a variety of reasons, from financial considerations to privacy. These clubs have every right to make these decisions.

A friend of mine, a baptist pastor from Queens, N.Y., is excited to attend the Crump Cup, held annually in late September at the storied Pine Valley Golf Club in southern New Jersey. It's the only way that he's probably ever going to step foot on the grounds at that club, which is, year after year, ranked by various publications as the top course in America.

He was here this week in Southampton for precisely the same reason: to see this famous, but mostly inaccessible, course on the east end of Long Island.

This same friend and thousands of others rush to Augusta National every year for the Masters Tournament to walk on those hallowed grounds that open themselves to the world for one week.

During Saturday's Walker Cup matches at the National Golf Links, I met Kenneth Chenault, the CEO of American Express. Chenault is a member of National, Shinnecock Hills and Augusta National, among other clubs. A hectic schedule as the head of a leading financial services company limits the amount of time he has to play these courses.

As we chatted, I thought to myself what a shame that he couldn't make more time to play on courses that the average guy would jump at a chance to just be on the grounds.

I'm sure a well-intentioned and thoughtful man like Chenault doesn't take for granted what he has in a membership at a place like the National Golf Links. He could likely join any club he wants in the world. And he looked as happy as all the members I saw this weekend to be sharing their golf course for the first time in 90 years.

The Walker Cup matches were a coming out party of sorts for a club that has been too selfish with this gift from nature and Macdonald. Something this beautiful should be shared with the world as often as possible.

Nowadays, the USGA, the PGA Tour, the R&A and the PGA of America all talk about growing the game. The game needs more new golfers as well as younger players and it needs to retain the ones that it already has. But the game as a body needs to also strive more regularly to encourage the elite within its ranks to open its historic courses like the National, its neighbor Shinnecock Hills and Pine Valley.

It's not unreasonable for the members of these clubs to open their courses for small tours. These venues are living, breathing museum pieces that shouldn't be viewed exclusively by titans of industry and scions of old man families.

What good would a Monet or Picasso painting be to the world if it couldn't be featured on museum walls for people of all backgrounds to consume and discuss?

This weekend, I overheard many spectators talking about the 18 holes at the National Golf Links as if they were paintings or sketches created by a master artist with the ability to conceive bunkers, greens and swells out of the land.

Every hole here tells a story. Go around with one of the club's caddies and you're bound to get a lesson about shot making and course design that goes back more than 100 years, to when Macdonald was drawing inspiration for the National from courses in the British Isles.

Some have said that National's No. 4 Redan, a 193-yard par-3, is better than the original, the 15th hole on the West Links of North Berwick in Scotland.

As I leave this great American landmark for perhaps the last time, my hope is that the success of these matches and the satisfaction the members got from sharing their jewel will mean the Walker Cup or some other big spectator event comes back here very soon.

We would not have the National Golf Links if Macdonald had been denied access to golf courses in the British Isles. What he learned he used for the good of American golf. It's time for all the old clubs to share. Private doesn't have to mean dead or reclusive. We learned during these Walker Cup matches that the National is very much alive.

Now that it's opened to greater light, its legacy can grow richer, and so can the lives of the golf fans that got to see it for the first time.