2002: Sheehan: Five rookies make for a special mix

The 2002 U.S. Solheim Cup squad will include five first-time participants, the most since 1992, the second playing of the matches. And U.S. captain Patty Sheehan isn’t planning to coddle her rookies – all are expected to play important roles Sept. 20-22 at Interlachen Golf Club.

Coincidence or not, Europe defeated the United States, 111⁄2 to 61⁄2, in those 1992 matches, the Europeans’ only victory in the first five stagings of the competition.

Back then, of course, no one truly could be called a Solheim veteran. The event had just started in 1990, and players on both sides were only beginning to get a taste of what the international competition was all about.

But this year’s five first-timers, who are all under age 30 – Wendy Ward, 29; Emilee Klein, 28; Laura Diaz, 27; Kelli Kuehne, 25; and Cristie Kerr, 24 – will no doubt benefit from the wisdom and guidance of such Solheim veterans as Juli Inkster, Rosie Jones, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Kelly Robbins. All of those players have seen action in at least three previous Solheims. Their captain, Sheehan, played in four.

“We have got young players in there and older ones,” Sheehan said, “and not a lot in between . . . I think it will make for a very good mix of veterans and rookies.”

Although Solheim icon Dottie Pepper won’t be able to play because of an injured shoulder, she also will be in Minnesota – blue fingernails and all – to lend advice and inspiration to the U.S. squad as it tries to win back the cup that Europe regained with a 141⁄2-111⁄2 victory at Loch Lomond in Scotland two years ago.

“In the long run, that may even help us,” Inkster said. “Dottie will be more into helping everyone else on the team rather than doing what she normally does to get ready (to play). With her on the sidelines, she will be able to be a good listener, giving her wisdom to the younger players, letting them know the little ins and outs of the Solheim. That can only help.”

Pepper doesn’t think it will take the five newcomers very long to understand the intensity of the matches.

“After you experience the opening ceremonies, I don’t think you have to be told again how important this event is,” Pepper said. “Just seeing the people carrying around the flags and dressed red, white and blue from head to toe lets you know right away.”

Many of the rookies have been preparing for the moment since the beginning of their professional careers. And four – Kerr, Kuehne, Klein and Ward – played in the Curtis Cup, the Solheim’s amateur equivalent.

“For me personally, the Solheim Cup has been a huge goal of mine,” said Kuehne.

“It’s very exciting for the younger players,” Sheehan said. “They are all jazzed. They are really excited and stoked to come and play the Solheim Cup. They have been watching it for years, and some of them have played the golf course. They know what it’s all about.”

The balance of veterans and youngsters has the more experienced team members – including Inkster – looking forward to this year’s event. No U.S. team since 1994 has had more than three first-time players.

Inkster and Sheehan say team chemistry formed off the course can have a lot to do with success in the Solheim.

“What I remember the most from playing in this event are the off-course memories, the discussions in the team room, in the locker room,” Sheehan said. “The way you discuss your experiences at the team dinners, the bonds that you form as teammates. I want to make those memories special for the new players, too.”

“I think having all these young players is going to be a good thing,” Inkster said. “Sure, it’s nice to have people who have a lot of experience, but experience only goes so far. You’ve still got to play good golf. And if you’re not playing good golf, you’ve got to grind through and do what it takes to win, and I think we’ve got a lot of good, confident young players who can do what they have to to win.”

Sheehan also thinks her youngsters will have more than enough mettle to combat whatever Interlachen or the Europeans throw their way.

“They really are a fun, fiery group,” she said. “For some reason, some of them don’t like everybody to see what they’re made of, but I tell you what – it’s going to come out in the Solheim Cup. You’re going to see their true personalities come out, and they’re going to explode.”

The younger players will need that and more to survive – and thrive – in a competition that is like no other in women’s professional golf.

“The Solheim is such a different event,” Sheehan said. “It has such an effect on your nervous system. You can’t describe it until you’ve actually played in something of this magnitude. It literally makes you sick to your stomach.”

“Yeah, they’re going to be nervous at first,” Inkster said, “but I don’t want them to get stressed out that this is life or death. They’ve worked for two years to be a part of this team, so I want them to be able to enjoy it.”

If nothing else, the American youngsters can find comfort in at least two things.

Those five first-timers in 1992? They had a combined record of 5-4-3, and helped earn 5 of the U.S. team’s 61⁄2 points.

Even more important, this year’s European squad has six rookies of its own.

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