Rhys Pugh figured his first time around in the Walker Cup would create memories that would last a lifetime.
As it turned out, what he accomplished was something nobody connected with either team will ever forget.
Pugh, a freshman at East Tennessee State, just returned from Scotland, where he played a starring role in Great Britain and Ireland’s stunning victory over the Americans in the biennial amateur team competition at Royal Aberdeen.
At 17, Pugh was the youngest player on either team, yet he had the most impressive performance. He played three of the four matches, winning each one. It was the quality of the competition that made his feat so impressive. His victims included the top-ranked amateur in the world, the No. 3 player and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
“The whole experience was unbelievable,” Pugh said. “The crowds were great. I haven’t really thought about it all too much yet. It will sink in soon.” Pugh’s indoctrination to the Walker Cup, against world No. 3 Patrick Rodgers of Stanford, was a harsh one. Rodgers birdied the first five holes and chipped in on the seventh. Showing experience that belied his years, Pugh wasn’t fazed.
“It was the best I’ve ever seen,” said Pugh, who was three holes down after the opening barrage. “But I just stayed patient. I knew I just had to keep going and play one shot at a time.”
When Rodgers cooled off, Pugh took over, making five birdies of his own over the final nine holes of a 2 and 1 victory.
Pugh admitted, during the early onslaught, he thought for a brief moment that it wasn’t going to be his day.
“Maybe a little bit, but I still thought I could win,” he said.
Perhaps buoyed by the confidence of his initial singles victory, Pugh then teamed with James Byrne to demolish UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay, the top-ranked amateur, and 10th-ranked Chris Williams of the University of Washington in a foursomes (alternate-shot) match. Pugh and Byrne won 5 and 3.
In his final singles match, Pugh topped U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft 2 and 1 in the match that ultimately sealed the GB&I team’s 14-12 victory. It has been pointed out that had Pugh lost any of his matches, the Americans would have retained the cup.
“It’s been incredible,” Pugh said of the Walker Cup aftermath. “People have been leaving messages, texts, Facebook, everything.”
Even though Pugh was one of the youngest ever in the competition, he had plenty experience. He played for the Wales’ men’s national team at the age of 15 and won the Irish Open Amateur this summer.
“I didn’t really feel like the youngest player,” he said. “I played with the guys for a few years.”
Former ETSU player Michael Stewart was also on the GB&I team. He won 2 1 /2 out of four points.
With the Walker Cup behind him, Pugh can get his collegiate career under way. He chose ETSU based on recommendations of former Welsh players Rhys Davies and Cennydd Mills and current teammate Rhys Enoch.
“They have all said it was great so I’ve been looking forward to it,” he said.
Pugh should make his collegiate debut Sept. 26 when the Bucs play at the Inverness Collegiate Invitational. Home fans will be able to see him play Oct. 14-16 at the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate at Blackthorn Club.