2005: Youth infusion

By Jay A. Coffin

When the Europeans handily defeated the U.S. two years ago at the Solheim Cup, doom and gloom was predicted for the red, white and blue in the next several editions of the biennial competition. Not only because Europe won by the largest margin in the history of the matches, 171⁄2-101⁄2, but because it appeared the Americans would be devoid of young talent for the next decade or so.

There were five twentysomethings who combined for a 6-10-1 record on that 2003 squad. Cristie Kerr carried her weight, finishing 3-1, and has established herself as a force the past two seasons. Kelli Kuehne went 2-2 in Sweden but has struggled mightily since. Heather Bowie, Laura Diaz and Angela Stanford combined to produce 11⁄2 points. It again was veterans Juli Inkster and Beth Daniel who pulled the load, keeping the matches from being even more of a blowout than they were.

On that shocking Sunday at Barseback Golf & Country Club, it was difficult to find anyone who’d come right out and say that the Americans desperately needed younger players who eventually could replace the commanding presence of Inkster, Daniel, Meg Mallon and Rosie Jones, players who are in the late stages of their careers.

“We have great players,” Inkster said after the U.S. loss in 2003. “I just think for these three days . . . they probably made half a dozen more putts. That’s really what it comes down to. It’s not that they’re better than us or they play with more emotion. Or they have more pride than us. Or that we don’t play hard because we don’t have money in front of us. . . . If we played next week and played for three days, we’d probably win.”

Two years, however, have made a world of difference for the U.S. team. The stars and stripes no longer has reason to worry about the quality of youth. This year’s squad is younger and, by all accounts, better.

Angela Stanford, then 25, was the youngest U.S. member two years ago. The team that takes on Europe Sept. 9-11 at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Indiana will have three players (Paula Creamer, Christina Kim, Natalie Gulbis) 22 or younger. Add in Kerr, 27, and the Americans have found themselves a “core of four” that presumably could lead the U.S. Solheim Cup team for the next decade and beyond. And don’t forget soon-to-be-16 Michelle Wie and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel are knocking hard on the door.

“We’re going to bring a lot of energy and hopefully good play to the team,” said Gulbis, 22. “I think the youth says that this team is here and it’s a team built for the future. It’s exciting to be a part of it all.”

Nineteen-year-old Creamer (No. 2), Kerr (No. 3) and Gulbis (No. 6) all are in the top six in LPGA earnings in 2005, and have won a combined four times. Kerr and Creamer finished 1-2 at the Wendy’s Championship Aug. 28. Kim, 21, ranks 24th. Though she is having an off-year compared with 2004, when she earned her first victory and was 15th on the money list, Kim brings plenty of spirit and fire.

The best part for the U.S. side is that its young players won’t be satisfied simply getting to Crooked Stick. Once there, they know there is a job to accomplish.

“My expectations are to win the Cup, that’s the goal,” Creamer said. “I don’t just want to play. I want to win.”

This year’s Solheim Cup officially could designate a changing of the guard, with Creamer, Gulbis and Co. lending support to veterans Daniel (48), Inkster (45), Jones (45) and Mallon (42). Hard to believe that by the time Creamer was born in 1986, Inkster, Creamer’s idol, already had won seven times on tour.

Creamer, a tour rookie who has won twice, easily earned her Solheim spot in six months when all others had two years to accumulate points. Though she is inexperienced in Solheim Cup play, Creamer’s fearless attitude and stout confidence likely means she’ll play all five sessions. She and the other rookies expect to contribute, play as much as possible and bring the Solheim Cup back to American soil.

In basketball terms, if they were a point down with three seconds remaining, all would want the ball in their hands and none would shy from taking the decisive shot.

“We’re putting our saddles on and riding them right through the Solheim Cup,” Mallon said of the young players. “I have no problem admitting that. These girls are like seasoned veterans with how they handle the pressure. It’s going to be fun to see it all through their eyes.”

That Kim and Gulbis have little experience in team competitions is little cause for concern. Neither have a few of their European counterparts. Creamer, on the other hand, may be the youngest Solheim Cup player ever, but she has ample match-play experience, having competed for the U.S. in the Junior Solheim Cup in 2003 and the Curtis Cup in 2004. She also advanced to the semifinals of the 2003 and 2004 U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur. Kerr is the wily veteran of the bunch, having played in two Solheim Cups – a U.S. victory in 2002 at Interlachen in Minnesota and the lopsided defeat in Sweden two years ago.

“I’m going to be there to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about things,’ if that’s what they need me to do,” Kerr said. “Other than that, we’re going to have a lot of fun and play as hard as we can.”

As exciting as the potential is for the U.S., this Solheim Cup stands to be bittersweet. It perhaps will mark the last time Inkster, Jones, Daniel and Mallon will be on the squad together. The four players have 25 Solheim Cup appearances between them.

Jones already has announced that she’ll retire following the season. Mallon and Inkster haven’t announced future plans, but neither is likely to be on a Solheim Cup team past 2007. (“We always think the next is our last,” Mallon said.) Daniel will be 50 when the matches return to Sweden in two years.

The infusion of new talent is critical for the future of the U.S. Solheim Cup team. It’s important for the veterans to impart their knowledge to the rookies, and just as important for the rookies to observe how the veterans handle themselves. The rookies need to embrace the opportunity; future success could depend on it.

“We have a really good mix throughout with a lot of veterans, lots of mid-vets and younger players,” Jones said. “We’ve already gotten together quite a few times for dinners and practice rounds and done some good bonding, and it’s really good. Nancy’s doing a great job getting us together and making the difference of ages narrow up a little bit.”

Two years ago, the future of American Solheim success painted a bleak picture. And now that the future is here and the 2005 Solheim Cup finally upon us, it’s hard to fathom it could be much brighter.

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