2005: United they stand

By Beth Ann Baldry

Carmel, Ind.

She grooved to pop music’s The Pussycat Dolls in the team locker room, encouraged U.S. players to tell dirty jokes in the midst of a match and shed enough tears to fill the Solheim Cup before it even began.

Who is this mystery madam? (Hint: It’s not one of the three too-cool-for-school rookies who went 8-3-2 last weekend.)

The surprising answer is 48-year-old Hall of Fame mother of three Nancy Lopez, captain to the stars.

In what veteran U.S. players called their most enjoyable Solheim Cup experience (and that was prior to Sunday’s finale), Lopez succeeded in forging an exceedingly tight-knit American crew that topped Europe, 151⁄2-121⁄2, Sept. 11, tying for the closest winning margin in Cup history.

“I certainly have seen a different side of her than I ever saw, and you know, I think Nancy and I have come out of this being friends,” said Beth Daniel, who’d considered Lopez a rival since their teenage years. “When you get a captain like that, there is extra motivation.”

From the start, Lopez knew that bridging the generational divide would be the key to her success.

With a crew of gutsy veterans in Daniel, Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon and Rosie “Indiana” Jones playing alongside the uber-confident rookie trio of Paula Creamer, Christina Kim and Natalie Gulbis, there had to be some common ground at Crooked Stick.

Lopez started with get-to-know-you dinners a few months out, then hired a motor coach to drive the team down for an early practice round Aug. 29 after the Wendy’s Championship.

Along the way they discovered a common bond in hip-hop music, and Mallon mixed a workout

CD for every player that featured the likes of Usher and 50 Cent, gaining instant cool points from the younger crowd.

“They were so impressed that we even listen to that kind of music,” said Daniel, who rocks with Eminem in her iPod. “I just think the earlier practice rounds that we did with them have helped so much to make them see that, ‘Hey, you might be the age of my mother, but you’re OK.’ ”

Lopez and co-captain Donna Caponi then went the extra mile in decorating the players’ hotel rooms with balloons, flowers, chocolates, candles, oversized glossy photos and, of course, team bags.

When Creamer walked into the sea of red, white and blue Sunday she told her mother, Karen, that “it all settled in that day. I made it.”

Entering Day 3 singles tied for the first time since 1994, the Americans pounced on Europe early by winning six of the first seven matches.

Creamer, the undisputed heavyweight of the match, stunned England’s Laura Davies with seven birdies in 13 holes to secure the first U.S. point.

Laura Diaz then dusted Iben Tinning, 6 and 5, to win the event’s first maternity match. The casual fan might not even notice that a toned Diaz is entering her sixth month of pregnancy. Lopez, however, said that when she was five months along, people were already asking if she was ready to deliver.

Shortly after Diaz, another couple of American supermoms, Inkster and Pat Hurst, poured on the pressure late in their matches just as the momentum had begun to shift in Europe’s direction.

Inkster won Nos. 13-15 to build a 2-up lead against Sweden’s Sophie Gustafson, while Hurst’s three-hole winning stretch came at 14-16 against Trish Johnson. Both veterans closed their matches on the 17th green to score a pair of crucial points for Team USA.

With Creamer providing the team’s morning boost, it was fitting that a seasoned player lasso the winning point. As Europe rallied around Annika Sorenstam’s 4-and-3 victory over Daniel, the pressure began to weigh on Mallon in the pivotal 27th match. Lopez loaded up with youthful firepower in the front and relied on Mallon and Jones to carry the Cup’s caboose.

With 14 points already on the board, the U.S. needed a half-point to reclaim the coveted 17-inch trophy. Karen Stupples cut Mallon’s 3-up advantage to two on No. 15. But the freckle-faced stalwart matched her with par on the 16th to ensure the halve, and the U.S. party unofficially started.

“With all those matches going the wrong way for us, it’s tough,” said Sweden’s Carin Koch, who rallied against Michele Redman to win, 2 and 1.

“I think we’ve done everything we can.”

The only misfortune of the day for the American side came after the closing ceremony when Mallon was taken to a local hospital after becoming light-headed. The fun-loving Mallon, who had delivered an inspirational speech the night before that moved both young and old, was still at the hospital the following day, undergoing tests for a rapid heart rate.

Talk about getting the blood pumping. Creamer and Gulbis were up at 5 a.m. the Monday

before the Cup raring to get started. Lopez had arranged for more Labor Day pampering, with players enjoying manicures, pedicures and massages in their monogrammed bath robes.

In addition to the frilly details, Lopez also poured over statistics with husband Ray Knight.

“He followed every stat for probably the last two years,” said Lopez. “I mean, I’m surprised he didn’t tell me how many times they ate during the day.”

Lopez’s strategy also included the first alternate-shot practice session in U.S. Solheim history, a move Inkster believed won the match.

After a disappointing 1-3 start in Friday’s fourball session, the Yanks flip-flopped on Saturday with a 3-1 showing that pulled them into a six-all tie with Europe. The fourth match of the morning proved a pivotal point for the Americans as Michele Redman and Pat Hurst pulled off an unlikely comeback victory against Annika Sorenstam and Catriona Matthew.

On the 17th hole with the match all square, observers couldn’t decide which was more surprising: Redman holing a dramatic 20-foot par putt or Sorenstam missing a 12-footer for birdie.

Things got even more unorthodox when the World No. 1 dunked her tee shot into the water on the 18th, virtually sealing an emotionally charged point for the home team. Redman credited the victory to a pep talk by Lopez on the fifth tee. The Indiana University graduate came off the bench after Cristie Kerr called in sick that morning with a stiff neck.

“Somebody was banging on my door at 5:20 a.m., and it was Donna Caponi letting me know that Nancy wanted me in there and I was her first choice,” said Redman. “That meant a lot to me, and I wanted to prove to her that I could do it.”

While some of the old-timers were finding their footing, the first-timers didn’t falter. Lopez acknowledged that some of the best players on her team were rookies, and sent them out early Friday morning to get acquainted with Solheim pressure. The move left Mallon, Jones and Inkster on the sidelines, a sign of things to come.

“It was weird for me because I’ve never not played a first match,” said Mallon. “I said, ‘What do we do? When am I supposed to be there?

“Do I come in the uniform in the morning? Do I have breakfast at home?’ I had no idea.”

Creamer, who joined Hurst as the only Americans to play all five matches, paired with two Hall of Famers and Kerr in doubles sessions. All were impressed.

Daniel: “I got my pony going now.” Coming in as a substitute for Inkster, the 48-year-old Solheim veteran scored a half point with Creamer, 19, in a Day 1 match that paired the oldest and youngest players in Solheim Cup history.

Inkster: “She carried me this week.” Creamer and her longtime idol danced more than a few jigs around Crooked Stick on their way to a Saturday foursomes triumph.

Kerr: “She was my rock the whole match. She’s a hell of a player.”

The only blemish on Creamer’s 3-1-1 record came Friday afternoon when she and Inkster ran into a stick of Davies dynamite. The no-holds-barred Englishwoman birdied seven holes on her own ball and carried partner Suzann Pettersen to a 4-and-3 thrashing.

European captain Catrin Nilsmark tried to stick it to the U.S. the following afternoon with a first-time powerhouse pairing of Davies and Sorenstam. As expected, Europe’s strongest prevailed over Hurst and Kim (4 and 2), but even that sure-fire point wasn’t enough.

Gulbis, sporting a mini mini-skirt, joined Creamer and Kim in earning critical singles points Sunday afternoon. Nilsmark, who had hoped Lopez’s rookies would succumb to the immense pressure of going alone, called it America’s “strongest team.”

U.S players credited much of their success to Hoosier hospitality. Tickets to the Solheim Cup sold out for the first time last February and at times it seemed there wasn’t a shy supporter in all of Carmel. Somewhere in between “God Bless America” and chants of “Tastes great . . . less filling,” the U.S. found the inspiration to keep its perfect home record intact.

But Sorenstam senses the gap is narrowing.

“I just feel it’s a matter of time before we do it,” said Sorenstam. “Once we really get it in our heads that we can do it (win in America), we’re going to do it over and over again.”

Not if Creamer, America’s newest Solheim sweetheart, can help it. It seems the only thing she enjoys wearing more than her trademark pink is red, white and blue.

Three years ago Creamer, then a member of the inaugural U.S. Junior Solheim Cup team, carried Inkster’s bag for one hole at Interlachen Country Club and deemed it the highlight of her life. Clearly that memory has been trumped.

Twelve united U.S. players took to the course on a particularly patriotic day, gave it their all and walked away victorious.

Said Kim: “Just to remember all the people that we lost in 9⁄11, to know that we can take that Cup and represent our country, and do it with pride and grace and class . . . it’s unbelievable.”

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