Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 20, 2015

Rules Fracas Hides The Solheim Cup’s Real Problem

As villains go, Suzann Pettersen doesn’t really look the part. Maybe it’s the blonde ponytail that the 34-year old Norwegian usually favors, but the winner of 15 LPGA Tour events plus another 6 on the Ladies European Tour during a 15-year professional career doesn’t appear to be a conniving knave. Yet in the wake of Sunday morning’s controversy at the Solheim Cup golf pundits and fans galore were busy casting Pettersen as a black-hearted Iago whose petty gamesmanship drove American Alison Lee to tears before Team USA stormed from behind in the afternoon singles matches to win the Cup.

While fans in this country were soundly sleeping, three fourball matches that had been suspended by darkness Saturday evening were resuming at Golf Club St. Leon-Rot, just south of Heidelberg, Germany. On the 17th green Pettersen and England’s Charley Hull were all square in their match against Americans Lee and Brittany Lincicome. With the Europeans having made par, Lee lined up an 8-footer for birdie to win the hole. The putt missed, stopping about 18 inches past the cup. Believing that she heard someone say “that’s good,” Lee then picked up her ball. While it’s possible that someone in the grandstand may have uttered those two words, neither of the Europeans had offered the concession. Pettersen immediately pointed this out to the rules official accompanying the match, who after consulting with all four players assessed a penalty against Lee, giving the hole and a 1-up lead to the Europeans.

Pettersen and Hull won the 18th as well to record a 2-up victory and put Team Europe up 10-6 heading into the twelve singles matches. By the time they did so the storm of controversy was already breaking over the Norwegian. On the Golf Channel commentator Judy Rankin abandoned any pretense of neutrality to rail against the “very poor sportsmanship” of the European side. England’s Laura Davies, serving as an analyst for the Sky Network’s coverage declared herself disgusted and held her former European teammate responsible for the eventual American victory.

But Rankin, Davies and the scores of others who decried the episode are guilty of selective amnesia. For both men and women, these team competitions have often been scenes of over the top gamesmanship. At the 1989 Ryder Cup Seve Ballesteros attempted to replace a scuffed golf ball with a new one, only to have Paul Azinger contend to a rules official that the Spaniard’s ball was not “unfit for play.” The official sided with the American and required Ballesteros to continue playing his original ball.

Fifteen years ago the American duo of Kelly Robbins and Pat Hurst were 1-up on Annika Sorenstam and Janice Moodie on the 13th green at Scotland’s Loch Lomond Golf Club. With Hurst in tap-in range for a certain birdie, Sorenstam holed a chip from off the green to seemingly halve the hole. But when Robbins walked back to line up her putt she realized that Sorenstam’s ball had been slightly closer to the hole than hers, meaning that the Swede had played out of turn. Under match play rules the Americans had the option of requiring the shot to be replayed, a course which Pat Bradley, Team USA’s captain, insisted upon.

The 1969 Ryder Cup is often cited as a paradigm of sportsmanship. In the final singles match Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin were locked in a tight battle, with the Englishman holing a 35-foot eagle putt at the penultimate hole to square the contest. Nicklaus then holed a 5-foot birdie putt at the 18th to ensure a half point and a final score no worse than a 16-16 tie. Since the Americans held the Cup a tie meant they would retain it. The Golden Bear immediately picked up his opponent’s marker, conceding Jacklin’s own birdie from about three feet. What has been lost over the decades is the fact that Nicklaus was roundly criticized by his teammates at the time, with Sam Snead huffing “We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.”

Sometimes the gamesmanship has been spontaneous, as when American players and even a few fans rushed the 17th green at The Country Club after Justin Leonard sank a crucial putt during Team USA dramatic comeback at the 1999 Ryder Cup; while Jose Olazabal still had his own putt to potentially extend the match.

Whether calculated or not, such incidents are inevitable byproducts of intense competitions in which the stakes are national pride instead of a fat paycheck. In retrospect it’s likely that few of those involved have later looked back on them as high points in their golfing career. But it’s far more unlikely, as some have suggested, that Pettersen and Hull planned the non-concession in hopes of fooling Lee, a Solheim Cup rookie, into picking up her ball. Anyone following that thread doubtless has firsthand knowledge of the identity of the second gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas.

Of far greater concern for the Solheim Cup than accusations of gamesmanship is the mismatched nature of the competition. Yes the Europeans can and will win from time to time. Of the fourteen matches played to date Team Europe has won five times. But four of those have come in Europe, where the home squad has the strong support of local fans and a nominal winning mark of 4-3. The only time Team Europe has won in this country was two years ago, when the Americans arrived at Colorado Golf Club with an attitude that winning was a given, and generally paid greater attention to their matching nail treatments than to their golf games.

The Americans will always be heavy favorites because of the depth of their squad. At 48th after a season-long slump, Paula Creamer was the lowest ranked American in the Rolex Rankings, and a somewhat controversial captain’s pick for this year’s team because of that fact. But the telling statistic is that eight Europeans, fully two-thirds of the home team, sat lower than Creamer in the world rankings. Caroline Hedwall, one of Carin Koch’s captain’s picks for Team Europe, isn’t even ranked in the top 100.

Much has been made of the 8 ½ to 3 ½ rout in Sunday’s singles that enabled Team USA to rally and win the Cup by a single point; and certainly the valiant play of Gerina Piller and Angela Stanford in key matches was thrilling to watch.  But since the format went to twelve singles matches in 1996 the Americans have claimed the most points on Sunday seven times, with an average score of 8 ½ to 3 ½, exactly matching this year’s result. One on one match play is where the individual ability of each player is most critical, and the singles have proven crucial to winning the Cup, with only two teams emerging victorious without winning the most points on Sunday.

Of course anything can happen in any given match, which is why Team Europe will pull off a surprise from time to time. But by and large form will hold, which means that most years the results of the Solheim Cup will remain a forgone conclusion. Just as America’s opponent at the Ryder Cup was expanded from Great Britain, first to include Ireland and then all of Europe, in order to make the matches more competitive, so should the Solheim Cup be expanded to include a World Team facing off against America’s best women golfers. Seven of the top ten women in the world couldn’t play this week, because they aren’t from either the USA or Europe. Add them to the mix, and the focus will truly be on the competition, rather than on some sideshow about gamesmanship.

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