By Peter Mumford
There’s something about team play in golf that brings out the best, and sometimes the worst, in players and coaches.
And when you add in nationalities, face-paint, chants, long held grudges, current grudges and emotional (read crazy) fans, the result is terrific entertainment.
The LPGA is taking a break this week to stage the bi-annual Solheim Cup matches between Europe and the United States. This is the 15th playing of the Solheim Cup, which dates back to 1990, so it is a relative newcomer to team golf, unlike the Ryder Cup that was established in 1927.
Most of us are familiar with the frenzy and excitement that comes around every two years when the Ryder Cup matches are played. The media diligently covers the appointment of every Ryder Cup captain, then agonizes over each decision he makes from the selection of his team to the design of the uniforms. As momentum builds for the matches themselves, every historical fact and footnote is trotted out ad nauseum to remind us all of the sanctity of the biennial matches. Ryder Cup pairings are critiqued endlessly and captains are lauded or pilloried on the success of their decisions, even though it’s the players hitting the shots. Legacies are built or crushed over an intense three day period. It’s very serious stuff.
When the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour got together in the late 80’s to discuss a similar format for the women, one of the guiding principals was that the matches were intended to showcase the talent of the players in a “friendly” international competition. Karsten Solheim, the founder of PING, was instrumental in getting the inaugural event off the ground. In fact, it was at the urging of his wife Louise, who felt strongly that the company should do something for women’s golf.
The initial Solheim Sup matches were held in 1990 at Lake Nona in Florida with the US hammering their European competitors 11 ½ to 4 ½. The Euros returned the favour two years later in Scotland.
The matches flew under the radar a bit as far as golf fans were concerned but they had the Ryder Cup in alternate years to get worked up about. As far as the founders were concerned, everything was going swimmingly, showcasing women’s golf in an extremely positive light.
Then along came Dottie Pepper.
Anybody who has followed the American’s career knows that Dottie was a fierce competitor. Her on course demeanour, which can be described as an intense, ferocious, take-no-prisoners win-at-all-costs attitude, didn’t always sit well with her fellow LPGA players. And it particularly didn’t mesh with the sweet disposition of a young Annika Sorenstam.
In the 1998 matches at Muirfield Village in Ohio, Pepper’s antics and over-the-top American cheerleading led the Swede to put a picture of Pepper on a punching bag in the European locker room and invite other players to give it a few jabs any time they needed to let off steam. Naturally, word of the punching bag got back to the Americans who were incensed at the so-called lack of sportsmanship.
There’s no way of knowing whether any of that factored into the controversy that erupted two years later at Loch Lomond. Sorenstam and her partner were trailing in a pairs match against Kelly Robbins and Pat Hurst when they came to the 13th hole. Annika stepped up to her ball, which was just off the green and chipped it in for birdie. When Robbins approached her own marker on the green, she noticed that it was farther away from the hole than Sorenstam’s ball had been. In match play, the person farthest away ALWAYS goes first.
Robbins and Hurst conferred with Captain Pat Bradley and consequently Sorenstam was asked to replay her shot. She missed and was visibly upset about the process she just endured. Afterwards she explained that she felt it was an extremely poor show of sportsmanship on the part of the Americans, who had every opportunity to advise her that she didn’t have the honour before she hit her shot. While Robbins and Hurst prevailed in the match, perhaps the Europeans got some measure of revenge by ultimately winning the Cup for only the second time.
Following that brouhaha, the Solheim Cup settled down for a few years until the re-emergence of Dottie Pepper. In 2007 the matches were played in Halmstad, Sweden and the weather was horrible. Pepper was an on-course reporter for Golf Channel and after Team U.S.A. let two matches be halved that she felt should have been victories, Pepper let loose with her infamous comment that the Americans were “chokin’ freakin’ dogs.”
Pepper thought she was off the air but unfortunately still had a live mic, so her comments were broadcast far and wide.
Naturally, the American players were upset with her but so too was European captain Helen Alfredsson who stated, “I think it’s totally inappropriate, no matter what,” she said. “We’re all together in this. At the end of the day, it’s all for women’s golf, and she, if anybody, should know how tough things are.”
That was pretty much the end of Dottie Pepper at the Solheim Cup until Captain Meg Mallon gave her a reprieve and made her an assistant captain for the 2013 matches in Colorado. Team Europe handed the U.S. team its worst defeat that year.
Over the ensuing years, the Solheim Cup has grown in popularity amongst golf fans that seem to be energized every two years by the rabid patriotism that is displayed by players and on-course spectators. While it hasn’t risen to the level of the boorish displays of the worst Ryder Cups, at times it has gone to the edge.
The 2011 and 2013 matches featured some very creative face painting, tattoos and ribbons on the part of the American team. Who can forget the bespeckled, tattooed, blinged-up American squads led by towel waving Christina Kim or fist pumping Michelle Wie?
Unfortunately, it didn’t work.
Following defeats in both years, newly minted captain Juli Inkster, no stranger to partisanship herself, declared that her 2015 team was going to focus on golf and leave the cheerleading stuff to the fans.
“No more of this rah-rah stuff,” said Captain Inkster.
She introduced a POD system like the one used by Paul Azinger to win the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in 2008 and it apparently worked as her team squeaked out a win over the Europeans in Germany.
With the matches in Des Moines, Iowa this week and Inkster leading the charge again, the US will be tough to beat. Lexi Thompson leads a power packed American team that leans heavily on veterans Stacy Lewis, Cristie Kerr, Michelle Wie, Brittany Lang, Brittany Lincicome, Gerina Pillar and Paula Creamer. Women’s PGA champ Danielle Kang will be making her debut performance.
Interestingly, Cristie Kerr needs just one point to tie Captain Juli Inkster for the most Solheim Cup points in U.S. history, at 18½.
On the European side, Suzanne Pettersen is the player with the most experience and she’ll be backed up by English star Charley Hull. The rest of the team will be largely unknown to most golf fans but the Euros have Annika Sorenstam as their captain. The best player ever in women’s golf could be a factor, even if she won’t get to swing a club.
The 2017 matches get started on Friday with foursomes and four-balls, followed by the same on Saturday and 12 singles matches on Sunday.
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag