Far be it from me to suggest that Sweden’s golfing men were a little slow on the uptake but if they’d been paying attention, they’d have noticed that their women had been racking up major titles and golfing achievements since 1988.
That was the year that a young, blonde, ever-smiling Swede called Liselotte Neumann won the US Women’s Open Championship, undoubtedly the biggest and best title in the women’s game, at Five Farms, Baltimore Country Club, Maryland. It made Lotta, a wee girl from Finspang, where you put your green fee in a milk churn before going out to play, a star at home, where the country was falling in love with golf anyway. The Americans loved her too and it made them start to realise that they were not the only ones who could play golf. There were Europeans who had to be reckoned with.
Lotta had been inspired by Laura Davies’s win at Plainfield, New Jersey, the year before. The Englishwoman with a no-holds-barred belter of a game had defeated Ayako Okamoto and JoAnne Carner, two of the world’s greats, in an 18-hole play-off and women’s golf was never quite the same again. For a start, a lot of the Europeans who had played against Laura since they were amateurs started to think bigger….If she can do it…..Laura added clout to every event she played in on the European tour and made headlines worldwide. Just as important, she proved that major titles were not just for the Americans who played on the (then very closed) LPGA Tour.
In 1992, when team USA arrived in Scotland for the second Solheim Cup, at Dalmahoy on the outskirts of Edinburgh, nobody gave the home side a chance. They’d be slaughtered, mangled, humiliated. Instead they were magnificent, majestic, marvellous and won by 11 1/2 points to 6 1/2. Neumann and Helen Alfredsson, paired together in the foursomes and fourballs, were unbeaten and nonplussed their opponents by jabbering away in Swedish. These were not the sweet, all-American, English-speaking Swedes they knew. The two Swedes also won their singles matches but it was left to the third Swede, unplayed until the last day (sometimes captains get away with these things and there were fewer matches then) and unknown to all the Americans, to hole the winning putt.
Catrin Nilsmark, like most of her teammates, played inspired stuff and defeated Meg Mallon, who had won two major titles, the LPGA Championship and the US Women’s Open, the year before, by 3 and 2. The 16th green took a pounding as the Europeans careered about, ecstatic. It was Nilsmark’s finest hour. She went on to win tournaments and in 2003 captained the winning Solheim team at Barseback but it would be hard to top Dalmahoy. There was no television coverage (result a foregone conclusion, no point, no interest), so Tony Jacklin, the Ryder Cup captain, who recognised a massive sporting upset in the making, was glued to Ceefax. [Note to younger readers, that was a teletext service, a forerunner to today’s minute by minute stuff.]
The ebullient Alfredsson, usually known as Alfie, was capable of inspired golf and in 1993 she won the Nabisco Dinah Shore, her first and as it turned out her only major title. I like to think that she jumped into the lake with Dinah but maybe Dinah had more sense. Alfie should have won the US Women’s Open at Crooked Stick that year but unravelled and Lauri Merten sneaked in to snatch the title. Whatever, life and golf were never dull with Alfie about.
Lastly but by no means least there was the incomparable Annika Sorenstam, whose numerous accomplishments included becoming world No 1, winning ten major titles and becoming the first person to win the money list in Europe and the US in the same year, some time before Henrik.
My personal favourite remains her record-setting 59 in the second round of the Standard Register Ping tournament at Moon Valley in Phoenix, Arizona, in March 2001, not least because I was there covering the event for The Times. We were sent to things in those days and got words in the paper. I have a signed copy of Golf World magazine for the week of March 23rd, with Annika on the cover beaming out at us, holding up her Callaway ball with a black number 59 inked on it. Not only did she go on to win the tournament, just holding off Se Ri Pak but she also relegated Tiger Woods, who had scotched talk of a ‘slump’ with a fist-pumping, knee-raising, rip-roaring victory at Bay Hill, to a tiny square on the cover.
I had a little triumph of my own when I persuaded the office to give me, with a pesky seven-hour time difference, more words than the men’s European Tour event that was being given top billing that week, 450-500 words to my 250-300. When Annika, who started at the 10th, much to the discomfort of ESPN, who were televising the event with a limited number of cameras, birdied the first eight holes, I started mithering London to give me more words. When Annika birdied the first four holes of her back nine, I pestered and pleaded again. Words granted and I had time to see Annika, who was playing with her sister Charlotta, the defending champion, run her putt for a 58 past the hole – but not too far.
You’ve got to hand it to the Swedes. They know a bit about spectacular golf.