Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 20, 2017

Individual Drama Behind USA’s Solheim Cup Rout

There was precious little doubt or drama about the overall outcome of the 15th edition of the Solheim Cup, the biennial team competition between golfers from the United States and Europe. After the underdog Europeans took a 2 ½ to 1 ½ lead in Friday morning’s foursomes, Team USA steamrolled to a 4 to 0 sweep in the afternoon fourballs. It was the first American sweep of a session in the history of the Solheim Cup. Their dominance was underscored not just by the result, but also by the fact that the Europeans never led at any point in any of the four matches.

The three-point lead after the first day of play confirmed what was apparent on paper, namely that Team USA was far more accomplished than Team Europe. World number two Lexi Thompson was the top ranked player on either squad, and the only golfer in the top ten of the Rolex Rankings, which are dominated at the top by players from Asia. But five of the twelve members of the American side arrived at Des Moines Golf and Country Club with world rankings in the top twenty-five, compared to just Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist at #13 and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda at #21 for the Europeans. Until #27 Jessica Korda was forced to withdraw because of a nagging forearm injury, the lowest ranked American was 25-year old Austin Ernst, a Solheim Cup rookie currently sitting at #57 in the rankings. After Suzann Pettersen in turn became an injury casualty for the Europeans and was replaced by Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, nearly half of Team Europe’s twelve members had lower world rankings than Ernst, with two players ranked outside the top 100.

Ernst, with one LPGA victory on her resume, was one of Juli Inkster’s two original captain’s picks. Given a third selection when Korda withdrew, Inkster tabbed 31-year old LPGA veteran Paula Creamer. It was the second straight Solheim Cup that Inkster had taken Creamer as a captain’s selection, and while there was general support for the choice two years ago this time there were plenty of doubters. Since her dramatic victory at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010, Creamer has but a single LPGA victory and that win, at the 2014 HSBC Women’s Champions, is now more than three years distant. She has tumbled all the way to 112th in the world rankings.

But the American captain knew that Creamer had the highest winning percentage in Cup matches of any member of Team USA. With experience in the six previous Solheim Cups, she also provided a veteran presence in the locker room and helped to mentor Team USA’s three rookies. Inkster sent Creamer out with the rookie Ernst once on Friday and twice more on Saturday, and the pair won two of their three matches. Then on Sunday Inkster slotted Creamer into the second of the twelve singles matches and her pick looked even smarter when the Pink Panther defeated Georgia Hall 1-up to record the first full point for the Americans on the final day.

By the time Nordqvist and Thompson teed off to start the Sunday singles, Team USA retaining the Cup was a virtual certainty. Friday evening’s three-point advantage swelled to five by the end of play on Saturday, when the Americans took three of a possible four points in the afternoon fourballs after the two sides split the morning foursomes. Large deficits have been overcome at previous Solheim Cups, most notably two years ago when the United States trailed by four points after two days before rallying on Sunday to shock the Europeans at Golf Club St. Leon-Rot in Germany. But that year too the American squad was the better team on paper, and they were no doubt energized by a late Saturday afternoon rules imbroglio involving Sweden’s Pettersen and Alison Lee, the sole American rookie.

Team Europe had no such motivating event this year in Iowa, and no team had ever made up five points on the final day, least of all one that on paper was so outmatched. Ultimately each side won five singles matches while two were halved. The 6-6 Sunday scoring made for a final tally of 16 ½ to 11 ½ in favor of the Americans. Since 2002, when the Cup went to its current format of four foursome and four fourball matches on each of the first two days followed by twelve singles on day three, this was the largest margin of victory for the Americans in their six wins. However, two of the three European triumphs in that time were by even larger margins, a seven-point edge in 2003 in Sweden and the 18-10 rout at Colorado Golf Club four years ago, the only time the United States has lost on home soil.

But if the ultimate outcome of this year’s Solheim Cup seemed both preordained on paper before the first ball was even struck and equally certain on the golf course from Friday evening on, there was still plenty of individual drama. Inkster’s selection of Creamer as Team USA’s injury alternate was the first such piece. Even before Creamer’s singles victory the American captain felt sufficiently vindicated by her choice’s play that she used a Saturday evening press conference to say to the doubters “shame on you.”

Then Sunday’s opening singles match turned into one of the most dramatic in the history not of just the Solheim Cup, but of any of golf’s team competitions. Both Inkster and European captain Annika Sorenstam chose to send their best player out first, so it was Thompson versus Nordqvist. The former’s sparkling resume makes it easy to forget that she is just 22, but there was no doubting that she was a very nervous young woman at the start of the round. She missed an easy three-footer to lose the 1st hole, then shanked a wedge at the 2nd. Another short putt went astray at the 3rd, and when Nordqvist rolled in a birdie putt at the par-5 4th hole, the world number two was 4-down after as many holes. First assistant captain Nancy Lopez and then captain Inkster walked with Thompson on the 5th fairway, encouraging her to stay in the match.

Whatever they said had a positive effect, with Thompson steadying herself and trading wins with Nordqvist at the 5th and 9th holes to make the turn still 4-down. Then, after shooting 2-over par on the front nine, Thompson took over the match by playing the next seven holes in 8-under par. Birdies at the 10th and 11th cut the lead to two, then Thompson’s gap wedge third shot from 112 yards on the par-5 13th dropped into the hole for eagle. Two holes later she sunk a long curling putt for another eagle on the par-5 15th hole, erasing what had once looked like an insurmountable deficit. Fittingly enough for this back and forth battle between two stars, Nordqvist struck a brilliant approach shot at the 18th to set up a birdie that left the match all square.

Close to two hours after Thompson’s stirring rally for a half-point, Lizette Salas came to the 18th hole 1-up on England’s Jodi Ewart-Shadoff. When Salas knocked in a four-foot putt to halve the hole she won both her match and the clinching point for Team USA. As her caddy wrapped an American flag around the 28-year old daughter of Mexican immigrants, fans who had heard all week about the depth of Team USA were reminded of its breadth. In these fraught political times, it was the best possible climax to America’s triumph at the Solheim Cup.

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