Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2019

Victory And Redemption At Gleneagles

At best there is a good deal of sexism among sports fans. At worst, and for far too many, the harsher and more accurate term is misogyny. Anyone who’s had even a few discussions about almost any game has heard the familiar rant that women players lack some specific physical attribute when compared to men. The list of supposed deficiencies is lengthy – women players are not as fast, not as strong, not as coordinated, not as competitive, and on and on. The conclusion of the diatribe is always that because of one or two or a dozen of these supposed shortcomings, women’s games fall somewhere on a scale that runs from not as interesting as men’s to utterly unwatchable.

It’s safe to assume that few of those who swear by these fallacies tuned in earlier this summer when Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and the other members of the U.S. Women’s National Team claimed their spot at the very peak of the world’s most popular sport, not simply as the best women’s squad but as the most accomplished team in soccer, period. There is also little doubt that on Sunday morning this group of fans could not be bothered to turn to the Golf Channel for the final day’s play at the Solheim Cup, the biennial team match between women golfers from the United States and Europe. They missed, for starters, quality play that belied their favorite canards. While that alone was reason to watch, those who didn’t also missed something far more powerful – an example of competitive fire matching that of any athletes that culminated in a stunning capstone to a career and a moment of redemption, all in the space of eight feet.

This was the sixteenth staging of the Solheim Cup since its inception in 1990, with the U.S. holding a commanding 10-5 lead in the previous encounters. That historical margin reflected the expectations of much of the golf media heading into this year’s matches at Gleneagles in central Scotland. While many of the top women professional golfers are from neither the United States nor Europe, in a competition limited to players from just those two areas the depth of the American squad far outranks that of the European contingent. That’s made plain by the current Rolex World Rankings, in which Americans outrank European players two to none in the top ten, six to one in the top twenty-five, and twelve to five among the top fifty players in the world.

The U.S. team arrived in Scotland with victories in the last two Cups, including a 16 ½ to 11 ½ drubbing of Team Europe two years ago in Iowa, and a stirring comeback victory in Germany in 2015. For many observers the sole bright spot for the home squad was that two of the earlier European wins came in 1992 and 2000, the previous times the matches were staged in Scotland. With Catriona Matthew, the Scottish golfer who won the Women’s British Open a decade ago on home soil at St. Andrews serving as captain of the European side, the faint hope as play started in chilly conditions on Friday was that Scottish luck would hold for a third time.

The American win at Golf Club St. Leon-Rot south of Heidelberg in 2015 had been especially dramatic, with the U.S. team dominating the singles matches on Sunday to overcome a 10-6 deficit. The catalyst for the American fightback was an incident on Saturday afternoon, when Alison Lee, who was playing with Brittany Lincicome, picked up her ball on the 17th green believing that the short putt that remained had been conceded by the European team of Suzann Pettersen and Charley Hull. But the veteran Pettersen, then playing in her eighth Solheim Cup, immediately claimed that no concession had been given. A match that had been all-square suddenly shifted to one-up in favor of the Europeans.

It was not the first time that gamesmanship had marred the Cup, which at times has seen both sides guilty of questionable actions. But while Pettersen’s move may have produced an immediate gain for her team, it angered the Americans and they converted that ire into inspired play one day later. In the messy aftermath Pettersen admitted she had allowed her desire for victory to trump any sense of sportsmanship.

For a time, it looked like the 2015 controversy might be Pettersen’s final moment in the Solheim Cup spotlight. In 2017 she was forced to withdraw from Team Europe just before the matches began due to a back injury. Then she missed most of the 2018 season while pregnant with her first child. While she returned to play this year, the missed time meant that Pettersen didn’t accumulate enough points to qualify on her own for the matches at Gleneagles. But Matthew added her to the team as a captain’s pick, a choice that was met with widespread surprise given Pettersen’s limited playing schedule.

Once play began on Friday, in cold, wet and windy conditions, Team Europe reminded fans that like all our games golf is not played on paper. Despite their apparent disadvantage, the underdog home squad took a one point lead after the first morning’s foursomes, then held that edge through play on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. The U.S. team finally drew even by taking 2 ½ points in Saturday afternoon’s fourballs, leaving the score at 8-8 heading into Sunday’s singles.

For much of the final day it seemed the expected would finally take place. The depth of the American team was evident, as the first nine matches to finish produced five U.S. wins and one tie. That gave the Cup holders a lead of 13 ½ to 11 ½ and meant that Team Europe had to sweep the three remaining matches to win the Cup.

But with the Scottish crowds offering vocal support, the European players refused to buckle. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist dispatched Morgan Pressel 4&3 to pull one point closer. Then 24-year-old Bronte Law of England belied her rookie status by holding a long birdie putt on the 16th hole to go 1-up on Ally McDonald. When the American missed a shorter par try to have the 17th, the two teams were tied.

Up ahead on the final green, Pettersen and Marina Alex were locked in a match that had gone back and forth over its eighteen holes as had many on Sunday, during which five went all the way to the 18th. After falling behind early Alex had fought back to square the match at the 14th, with the players matching scores on the next three holes. At the par-5 18th both players faced birdie putts, Alex from ten feet and Pettersen from eight. Alex’s effort slid by the right side of the cup, and all eyes turned to the player who had spurred the opposing team to victory at her last Solheim Cup appearance.

As Pettersen’s ball rolled up the hill from putter to hole, it never wavered from its line tracking to the center of the cup. As it was about to disappear from view, Pettersen dropped her putter and clinched her fists in triumph. In what the 38-year-old shortly revealed was her final stroke in competitive play, Suzann Pettersen completed a stunning comeback for Team Europe, and for herself. It was all very, very watchable.

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