Two weeks today the 1st tee at the glorious Gleneagles will be surrounded by thousands of chanting, singing, good-natured and humorous golf fans, ready to take on and be part of the rollercoaster that is the Solheim Cup. This will be the 16th meeting of the best female golfers from the continents of Europe and the USA, with the latter having won ten of those matches and the Europeans half that number.Those of us who support the blue and yellow contingent have become accustomed to examining the team sheets and inwardly shuddering, telling ourselves bravely that golf isn’t played on paper, but on grass. It’s been one way of dealing with the significant talent on display for the United States and, you know what, it’s true! Golf is not played on paper! It’s been a thrill and a privilege to witness a number of the European wins when undoubted underdogs and the scintillating golf produced by both teams under the severest pressure is sport at its very best.
As I write, the only place the 2019 teams are to be found IS on paper, finalised in the last few days. And so, the studying has begun and this time it looks different, very, very different.
Let’s take the Americans first. They’ve appointed Juli Inkster, a wily campaigner if ever there was one, as captain for the third consecutive match. She is undefeated so the US is bidding for a hatrick of wins. Juli was presented with ten of her twelve team members who qualified automatically, eight from a two-year rolling Solheim Cup points list, and two from the world rankings list. Two captain’s picks were in her gift.
I wonder what she was thinking as she studied those ten names? Here they are:- Marina Alex; Brittany Altomare; Danielle Kang; Megan Khang; Jessica Korda; Nelly Korda; Annie Park; Lizette Salas; Lexi Thompson and Angel Yin. Hardly household names over here and nothing to strike fear into opponents’ hearts when you consider the US teams of the past.Inkster has inherited five rookies. (Cautionary note to self: Europe had six rookies when they won for the one and only time on American soil in Colorado in 2013.) She has only two major winners in this line-up, Thompson and Kang with one apiece. Her five non-rookies muster nine Solheim Cup teams between them, but three of them have only one appearance apiece and those were all in the US. So, only two of the ten have played a Solheim Cup in Europe. Amazingly, it gets worse (or better, depending on your point of view). Three of these ten have not yet won a golf tournament on any main tour.
I remember as if it were yesterday how dismissive the Americans were of the make-up of the European team at Dalmahoy in 1992. Who was Catrin Nilsmark? They’d never heard of her and at that time she hadn’t even won a tournament! (Next cautionary note to self: this non-tournament winner was equal to the pressurised task of holing the winning putt.)
So, changed times. This is not the usual heavyweight American side dripping with majors and with tournament victories being commonplace. That is undoubtedly due to the dominance of the Asian players on the LPGA. This side is light on experience – of Solheim Cups and yes, even of winning. This is not the roster we have become accustomed to facing. Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Brittany Lincicome, Brittany Lang and the dreaded Cristie Kerr are all missing for one reason or another, so Juli had no option with her two picks but to reach into the pool of experience and pluck out Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel.Lewis is a veteran of four matches and Pressel five, so, phew, right there that doubles up the number of Solheim Cup appearances the 2019 team can boast. And the pair have played five times in Europe in what can often be a hostile away environment. Pressel has one major to her name and Lewis has two so that more than doubles the team’s total, bringing it up to five – still two short of Juli Inkster’s own personal tally.
From the captain’s point of view one of the most worrying aspects of her picks was that she didn’t feel she could pick players in form – that would have given her yet more rookies and she needed to balance out her team as best she could. In 2019 Pressel has played in nineteen events, missing the cut eight times, including six out of her last eight tournaments. The bright spark was a fourth place finish in the AIG Women’s British Open – that must have been like water to a woman in the desert for Inkster, never mind Pressel.
Lewis, meanwhile is juggling being a new Mum but has played a full schedule this year after taking the second half of 2018 off. She has played seventeen times, missing the cut on seven occasions, including in three out of her last four events. But, remember, she is a former world No 1. However, safe to say Inkster’s picks are not exactly in form – at the time of writing……
And so to Europe, led in Scotland by Catriona Matthew, that country’s most successful female golfer. A major winner herself, veteran campaigner of nine Solheim Cups, Matthew is quiet, humble, ultra competitive – and astute. She asked Laura Davies to be one of her assistant captains, an instant asset to the backroom team, alongside Kathryn Imrie and Mel Reid. Laura has played in twelve Cup matches and is the event’s leading points scorer. She has been the lynchpin of the Ladies’ European Tour for 30 years and to have that expertise and knowledge on hand for her team could well be a masterstroke.Europe has three rookies on the team this year: France’s Celine Boutier, England’s Bronte Law and Anne van Dam from the Netherlands. Boutier and Law have both won on the LPGA this year and Anne van Dam has four wins under her belt, three in the last thirteen months. All proven winners.
The other nine players to tee it up have played a whopping 31 Solheim Cups between them and have three major winners in their ranks, Georgia Hall with one and Anna Nordqvist and Suzann Pettersen with two apiece.
England is well represented with two other players joining Law and Hall, who has been showing some good form of late. Charley Hull, amazingly, is teeing it up in her fourth Cup match at the tender age of 23. She has already won Stateside and has also recorded a victory in the United Arab Emirates earlier in the year; Jodi Ewart Shadoff, one of Catriona’s four picks, will surely relish her third appearance in the blue and yellow of Europe, particularly as this will be her first home match. The only player on the side yet to win, Ewart Shadow has recorded four top tens this year despite being hampered by a niggling back injury. She had a small procedure a couple of weeks ago and is now pain free. That may be a slight injury concern for the Europeans but Catriona has that covered by inviting Reid to be one of the vice-captains. She will have her game ready to go, if needed.It would be hard to envisage a European team without a significant Spanish input and the female equivalent of Seve is surely Carlota Ciganda. A multiple winner on the LPGA, undefeated in Solheim Cup singles, she has that intensity that can inspire her teammates to great heights. The quieter but no less intense Azahara Munoz is playing in her fourth match after narrowly missing out last time around. Another European winner in America, Munoz has enjoyed an incredibly consistent season in the US with nine top ten finishes, two of those being in majors.
What team would not fight and claw to have Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist playing for them? Who will forget the top singles match she played last time out against Lexi Thompson? Four up at one point on the American, Nordqvist was hit with a barrage of birdies and better that saw Lexi eight under for a stretch of seven holes and 1 up playing the last. Anna’s response? A flawless 8-iron for a gimme to halve the match. Class in every way.Fellow Swede Caroline Hedwall will be playing in her fourth Solheim Cup and this is the first time that she has played her way into one of the automatic spots. With nine professional wins to her name she also has the distinction of being the only player to score five points out of five in a Solheim Cup match. I was there in Colorado to see it.
Another gearing up for her fourth encounter with the Americans is Caroline Masson of Germany and she, too, carries the confidence from winning on the LPGA. Experience has brought a calmness and maturity to her game and a recent top ten in Canada will reinforce her self-belief.
Perhaps one of Matthew’s most surprising moves was the naming of Norway’s Pettersen to the side despite only having played one individual 72-hole tournament in almost eighteen months because of the birth of her son last year. By the time Gleneagles rolls around she will have added two more tournaments to that tally and as she approaches her ninth match she promises that the fire in her belly is back.
This is the first European side I can remember that has every member playing predominantly in the US. They have all left their home countries to ply their trade; they are all battle hardened; and eleven of them have won on the toughest tour in the world. They have home support, they have a mix of exciting new talent and experience – and Europe have never lost a Solheim Cup in Scotland, winning in both 1998 at Dalmahoy and Loch Lomond in 2000.
It all looks very, very promising on paper with two weeks to go. But, remember, as we know only too well, this match isn’t played on paper. It’s played on grass.