The 15th edition of the Solheim Cup begins today at Des Moines Golf and Country Club in Iowa and record crowds are expected – proper Ryder Cup-sized crowds of over 25,000 fans per day. It’s a far cry today from the first playing of the event at Lake Nona in internet-less 1990 when the match wasn’t televised, yet founder Karsten Solheim was astute enough to have an hour-long highlights film made. Since then the match has followed a straight line upwards into the stratosphere and between us Patricia and I have been present at 13 of the 14 matches played so far and we’ve witnessed some amazing moments.
If Lake Nona was the launchpad for the Solheim Cup, the unexpected European victory in 1992 at Dalmahoy was the point the afterburners were switched on. Europe trounced the Americans by a clear five points, the defining moment coming when Sweden’s Catrin Nilsmark, at that time a total unknown to the US team – not even being a tournament winner – holed a 4-footer on the 16th green to beat Meg Mallon, winner of two majors the previous year. The might of the 10-woman American team with a haul of 23 majors between them had been scuppered by the Europeans who could collectively muster only two. I was at the back of that 16th green when the golf world was turned upside down and the home team and supporters jumped skywards. This was one of the finest sporting achievements I was privileged enough to see and they were my friends and my colleagues who’d delivered – I couldn’t have been prouder or happier and I suppose that’s really when my Solheim love affair began.
The pull of the Solheim was even strong enough to make my mother board a transatlantic flight for the first time at the age of 78 despite a pathological fear of flying. When a big family-and-friends trip to Muirfield Village for the 1998 Solheim Cup was being mooted, she was certainly not going to miss out on all the fun. She had been present at Dalmahoy and then at St Pierre in 1996 but this was her first away match and she and her pal from Cork, Brid O’Sullivan, were determined to make the most of it. They even brought their clubs along and enjoyed a week’s golf at Pinehurst after the match. Before that, however, Brid took a tumble out on the course, banging her head in the process and that was enough for the wonderful American and Muirfield Village hospitality to kick in. She was furnished with a clubhouse pass for the remainder of the match once it became apparent that she should not be out battling the crowds and nothing was too much trouble for our hosts. It’s not just the match that makes me love the Solheim Cup.
In 2009 and 2011 I was a small part of the European backroom team for captain Alison Nicholas, helping the players deal with all their media requirements leading up to the matches. This has to be tightly controlled otherwise it becomes difficult for them to focus on the main job of practice and preparation as so many people want a piece of them.
For me, it was the 2011 match at Killeen Castle that provided the most exciting and thrilling finish of all. Rain delays had halted the singles and by the time there were only four games left on the course the Americans were 12.5 to 11.5 ahead and in front in three of those games. To say it didn’t look good was putting it mildly. Christel Boeljon of Belgium raised our hopes with a final green victory over Brittany Lincicome to level the match score and with Suzann Pettersen producing the form of her life to finish with three consecutive birdies to defeat Michelle Wie on the 18th the home supporters were beside themselves. That meant Europe led by 13.5 to 12.5, so when Aza Munoz went dormie after 17 we knew we couldn’t lose. But that wasn’t enough for the Europeans. They had lost the last three Cups and they wanted victory outright. Somehow, Caroline Hedwall, coming up the last one down, magically conjured up a half against unbeaten rookie Ryann O’Toole. The magic 14.5 points were assured but turned into a final 15-13 scoreline when Aza also won on the last. My lasting memory of that Solheim Cup was the high speed journey back to the hotel on the team bus, music turned up to full volume, escorted by police motorcycle outriders clearing the road ahead for us. The hotel staff were all outside the door waiting to applaud the players in and, as you can imagine, headlong into a night-long party.
What else do I love about the Solheim Cup? The unique first tee singing by the two sets of fans, inspired by Sue Pidgeon and Angie Bell, amongst others, with the Spontaneous Orpheus choir (which was small but quite organised) setting the tone at St Pierre in 1998. The Europeans distributed song sheets and had different songs to welcome the players onto the tee. It took the Americans a few years to cease to be a little bemused by it but now they enter into the spirit of it all with glee. It’s even caught on in the Ryder Cup as well.
So many special moments, including our first (and, at the moment, only) win on US soil in Colorado in 2013. Let’s not forget, either, the sparky little controversies down the years that have added that extra bit of spice to it all.
So, no prizes for guessing where I’m spending today, Saturday and Sunday. The computer will be switched off and so will the phone.
Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Vamos Europe!