By Jay A. Coffin
These golf-crazed Minnesotans sure know how to throw a party.
Last month, just up the road at Hazeltine, unlikely hero Rich Beem outdueled Tiger Woods down the stretch to claim the PGA Championship. On that day, Beem edged a fast-closing Woods by one, did an awkward, hula-type dance, and rode off with the Wanamaker Trophy.
Here at historic Interlachen Country Club, on the same hallowed grounds where legends Bobby Jones and Patty Berg once wandered, it was the Solheim Cup’s opportunity to take center stage. United States against Europe, and history said it would have all the makings of a heated showdown.
With the exception of 12 European players and their captain, nobody left Interlachen disappointed.
The United States came from two matches down Sept. 22 to defeat Europe 151⁄2-121⁄2 and claim the 17-inch Waterford crystal trophy it lost two years ago at Loch Lomond in Scotland. Unlike Beem’s dance of choice, U.S. captain Patty Sheehan, 45, opted to celebrate by doing numerous cartwheels, much like those she landed six years ago after winning the Nabisco Championship, her sixth major victory.
“I am overwhelmed, I really am,” Sheehan said. “I never thought it would feel so good. I am so proud of this team. They have so much heart. I put them out there, told them to give it their all, and they gave me more than their all.”
For an event that was so closely contested in the final moments, each of the Cup’s five sessions were blowouts. Europe jumped out to a 3-1 lead after Friday morning’s foursomes (alternate shot) before the U.S. won the afternoon four-ball (better-ball) session, 3-1. On Day 2, the Americans handily won foursomes, 3-1, and the Europeans swept the four-ball matches, 4-0. In the end, as has been the norm, the Americans dominated singles, winning 81⁄2-31⁄2. In six previous Solheim Cups, only twice had the United States failed to outscore Europe in singles, a gap that now has widened to 44-25-7, a .625 winning percentage for the Americans.
After a Saturday sweep in four-ball play handed Europe a 9-7 lead, Sheehan received some criticism for benching seasoned players Juli Inkster, Laura Diaz and Meg Mallon. However, the move paid off because all three players were fresh and won key matches Sunday.
In another questionable decision, European captain Dale Reid sent out sacrificial Spaniards Raquel Carriedo and Paula Marti, who was struggling, first and second in singles, respectively, virtually conceding defeat in matches Reid knew were likely to be against top Americans.
Sheehan’s best piece of guidancecame in selecting her singles lineup. The two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion sent her best two players (Inkster and Diaz) out first, rolled the dice in the middle with a lineup light on experience, then closed the final two matches with steady anchors Beth Daniel and Rosie Jones.
“Patty sent me out first because I like to play fast,” Inkster quipped. “I just thought if we could just get a few points going – and Laura (Diaz) was right behind me and she was firing up some birdies – our team could see red (U.S. colors) on that board.”
After an opening-day performance in which Inkster said she “stunk,” she rebounded Saturday and Sunday with play expected of the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion. In her singles match against Carriedo, Inkster cruised to a 4-and-3 victory, good for the day’s first point.
Moments later, Solheim Cup rookies Diaz and Emilee Klein – both of whom finished 3-1 – closed out their matches over Marti and Helen Alfredsson, respectively, to quickly swing the momentum in favor of the red, white and blue. Mallon, Pat Hurst and Kelly Robbins followed with decisive victories, and it appeared a foregone conclusion the Americans would be victorious.
Shortly thereafter, Karine Icher three-putted the 15th hole against Jones, assuring the Americans the half-point needed to win the Cup. It was apropos that Jones would be the one to clinch victory. Sheehan and Jones were paired together in the first foursomes session of the first Solheim Cup – at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., in 1990 – where the duo crushed, of all people, Reid and Alfredsson, 6 and 5.In a dozen years, things haven’t changed much on Sundays. Once again Europe was within reach of victory when the singles started and walked away empty. Europe is 2-5 in the Solheim Cup, and never has won on U.S. soil.“Everybody was very happy going into today,” Reid said. “We were where we wanted to be and everybody, I felt, liked the pairings. They were quite comfortable with their matches.
“I guess on the day, really, we lost it. There is nothing else you can say. But in every match I saw today, all our girls were putting extremely well, but for some reason, the ball just didn’t want to disappear down the hole.”
Perhaps the three most-riveting matches of the day were the three that were halved. Minneapolis resident Michele Redman led Suzann Pettersen 5 up with five holes remaining, but lost five consecutive holes and only managed a half-point at a crucial point of the day. Pettersen made three birdies in the final five holes, including one at the closing par 5 to keep Europe in the game.
“I got the half point, that’s just the way it worked out,” Redman said. “The team won, and that’s all that matters. My teammates pulled me through, and I’m really happy about that.”
Another close match pitted former college foes Wendy Ward (Arizona State) and Annika Sorenstam (Arizona). Surely no one, not even Sheehan, expected Ward to go head to head with the world’s No. 1 player. Ward was 2 up after 11 holes, lost the next two but won No. 14 when Sorenstam missed a 2-footer for par. Ward had a chance to win the match on the 18th hole, but badly pushed a 4-foot birdie putt.
“I’ve always been very comfortable against her,” Ward said. “Today was a day where I felt the most calm. I had 100 percent confidence that I could go out and beat her.”
The third halve of the day was Daniel against Carin Koch, who was vying to become the first player in Cup history to sweep all five of her matches. With three holes remaining, though, Koch was told that Europe had no hope of retaining the Cup. Koch entered the final hole with a 1-up advantage, but hit an uncharacteristic shot into the water, lost the hole and halved the match. Koch’s career Cup record is 7-0-1.
On a sunny, cold and chilly day, the Europeans’ putting woes ultimately sealed the event for the United States. In all, Europe won only two singles matches. Iben Tinning defeated Kelli Kuehne, 3 and 2, and Sophie Gustafson beat Cristie Kerr, 3 and 2. Kuehne was the only member of either squad who didn’t earn at least one victory.
Although few would admit it, the Americans were fueled in part by earlier comments made by the next European Solheim Cup captain, Catrin Nilsmark. Nilsmark called Diaz “cocky,” Kerr “a little brat,” said Redman “lacked talent” and made the observation that Mallon’s best years “were behind her.”
“It helped us bond together,” said Klein of her U.S. team, “and it made us want to fight it out.”
If there were any good news for the Europeans in defeat, it is that the next Solheim Cup is only a year away, to be played at Barseback Golf & Country Club in Malmo, Sweden, in 2003. The Cup will now be played in odd years so it won’t conflict with the Ryder Cup.
“They’re only borrowing it – they only get it for a year,” Reid said. “All the girls seem keen to bring it back.”