Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 22, 2013

Unlikely Stars, Historic Victory

At last fall’s Ryder Cup matches the members of Team Europe stunned their golfing counterparts from the U.S. by rallying in the Sunday singles matches to retain the trophy they had won two years earlier in Wales. The improbable comeback was watched by millions on NBC who were all reminded that the genteel game of golf is as capable as any sport of providing riveting drama. Last weekend a far smaller cable audience had to turn to the Golf Channel to watch a team competition with a result every bit as shocking. In the 13th Solheim Cup matches, held at Colorado Golf Club in the Denver suburb of Parker, twelve Ladies European Tour members thrashed their American opponents by a final score of 18-10.

The Solheim Cup was the brainchild of Karsten Solheim, the founder of Karsten Manufacturing, maker of Ping golf clubs. Looking for a way to promote women’s golf in general and the two main women’s professional tours in particular, Solheim seized on the idea of cloning the Ryder Cup by staging three-day matches between teams from the U.S. and Europe. The first matches were held at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Florida in 1990. Since then the biennial competition has alternated between sites in the U.S. and Europe.

The shock value of this year’s matches was not in the mere fact that Team Europe won. While the U.S. holds an overall 8-5 lead in Solheim Cup results, all of that advantage was built in the early years of the competition, when Team U.S.A. won four of the first five meetings. Since 2000 the two sides are even with four wins each. But no winning squad had ever triumphed by such a lopsided margin. In the days leading up to the first tee ball being struck, most analysts favored the U.S. side, anchored by world #2 Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer and Christie Kerr, all major champions and Solheim Cup veterans.

While 10 members of the 12-woman U.S. team were ranked in the top 50 in the world, only half of the Europeans ranked that high; with 17-year old Englishwoman and Ladies European Tour rookie Charley Hull ranked all the way down at 147th. Hull, picked for the team by European captain and Swedish star Liselotte Neumann, was one of six Solheim Cup rookies wearing European blue. On top of the differences in rankings and experience was the fact that while Team Europe had tasted success in previous Cups, none of it had been on U.S. soil, with the Americans a perfect 6-0 on home turf. That the visitors would wind up winning seemed improbable. To suggest that they would do so by staging the biggest rout in the history of the event would have been grounds for a psychiatric evaluation.

But the possibility that all of the pre-match punditry was about to be exposed as so much hot air hung in the air from the very first tee shot. On Friday morning Americans Lewis and Lizette Salas won the 2nd hole in their opening match against the Swedish duo of Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall. After the Swedes evened the match on the 3rd, the Americans won the 4th to again go 1-up. It was the last time in the matches that Team U.S.A. would lead. Europe won the next two holes to seize the lead in a match that Nordqvist and Hedwall would eventually claim 4 & 2. By the lunch break Team Europe had won three of the four foursomes matches. When the two sides split the afternoon four-balls, Europe had a lead of 5 – 3 lead after the first day of play.

Team U.S.A. fared better on Saturday morning, winning two of the foursomes matches and halving a third, to cut the gap to 6 ½ – 5 ½. But in the Saturday afternoon four-balls Team Europe put a symbolic foot on the throat of the U.S. squad. All four available points went to the European golfers. Especially crushing to American hopes was the fact that two of the four matches were all square on the 17th or 18th tees. But first Hull and fellow countrywoman Jodi Ewart-Shadoff won both the 17th and 18th holes to defeat Creamer and Lexi Thompson 2 & 0, and then Spaniards Carlota Ciganda and Azahara Munoz manufactured a birdie at the last to claim a 1-up win over Angela Stanford and Gerina Piller.

As the holder of the Cup, Team Europe needed 14 points to hold onto it with a potential tie. Though the Golf Channel hosts did their best to inject some drama into the proceedings on Sunday, the likelihood that the American women were going to overcome a 10 ½ – 5 ½ deficit by securing nine points out of the twelve singles matches was remote. Certainly the fans on the grounds seemed to recognize the outcome even before it happened. When play was suspended for a time due to thunderstorms in the area, many of those decked out in their red, white and blue finest headed for the exits.

Those who chose to stay got to watch history made, even if it wasn’t exactly the story that American fans had imagined before the matches began. They also got to see some unlikely heroines for the winning team; for in the end the biggest points weren’t scored by Norway’s Suzann Pettersen, the #3 ranked woman golfer in the world, or by Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, the only other member of Team Europe ranked in the top ten.

First the tone of the final day was set by the teenager Hull. Scarcely a year removed from playing as an amateur in the Curtis Cup matches, she followed her sparking play in the crucial four-ball match on Saturday afternoon by spotting Creamer a brief lead on the 2nd hole of the second singles match to tee off. Then Hull won six of the next ten holes to crush the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion 5 & 4.

Later it was Hedwall, probably the least known Scandinavian associated with the team behind fellow players Pettersen and Nordqvist, captain Neumann, and vice-captains Annika Sorenstam and Carin Koch, who scored the winning point. All square with Michelle Wie in the 18th fairway, Hedwall drilled an iron to two feet from the flag, while Wie’s approach left her a lengthy downhill putt for birdie. After Wie missed, the 24-year old from Taby, Sweden, calmly rolled in her birdie and pumped her fist in triumph. With the win Hedwall became the first player in Solheim Cup history to play the maximum five matches and post a perfect 5-0-0 record.

If there is a flaw with the Solheim Cup, it lies in the fact that in a game currently dominated by Asian players, matches between teams from the U.S. and Europe exclude many of the game’s best. On the men’s side only five of the top twenty-five golfers in the current rankings, two Australians and three South Africans, wouldn’t be eligible for Ryder Cup teams named today. And of course, the non-Europeans have their crack at a team of Americans in the Presidents Cup matches, which alternate years with the Ryder Cup. There probably isn’t enough corporate support for an equivalent competition for women, where fifteen of the top twenty-five players are from countries that weren’t invited to Colorado. While a few have suggested turning the Solheim Cup into a U.S. against the world competition, given what Team Europe just did without benefit of an Inbee Park, Na Yeon Choi, or Karrie Webb, it’s probably in Team U.S.A.’s interest to leave bad enough alone.

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