Neumann grows from torchbearer to captain

European Solheim Cup 2013 captain Liselotte Neumann.

European Solheim Cup 2013 captain Liselotte Neumann.

— Welcome to the first tee, European captain Lisa Newman!

Meg Mallon laughs when she shares the story of how Liselotte Neumann’s name was butchered so often when she lived in South Florida that her nickname became “Lisa Newman of Boca.”

Such a thing would never happen in Sweden, of course, where Neumann (pronounced NOY-man) was put on a pedestal for winning the 1988 U.S. Women’s Open as a rookie, inspiring scores of her compatriots – notably Annika Sorenstam – to dream big.

At 47, Neumann steps into the spotlight again as captain of the European team for the 13th staging of the Solheim Cup, Aug. 16-18 at Colorado Golf Club. She’ll be captaining against good friend Mallon in a rematch of the 2011 Junior Solheim Cup.

Neumann grew up in Finspang, Sweden, a small town two hours southwest of Stockholm. Her father, Rune, coached golf in the summer and bandy (a field hockey/soccer combo on ice) in the winter. Neumann honed a gorgeous short game at the local nine-hole course, hitting flop shots at the spaces between the windows of the barn-like clubhouse with boys her age. Because women’s golf wasn’t shown on TV, her idol was the late Seve Ballesteros.

Neumann moved to America at age 21 to join the LPGA and enjoyed a magical run on the greens at Baltimore Country Club, site of the ’88 U.S. Women’s Open, elevating her status to that of major champion. She was the only Swede on tour in 1988; by 1995, six Swedes toured on the LPGA. Today, Sweden trails only South Korea and the U.S. in its depth.

“It sort of makes you proud that I was hopefully able to change golf in Sweden,” Neumann said.

Sorenstam couldn’t watch the ’88 U.S. Women’s Open on TV but remembers seeing a newspaper headline the next day with a photo of Neumann and the trophy.

“Knowing where she came from, a little town, I’m sure there were lots of girls who thought, ‘Wow, this could be me someday,’ ” Sorenstam said.

“I was one of them, thinking I could do it.”

Mallon referred to Neumann as the “Inbee Park of her time.” Her silky-smooth putting stroke was coupled with a steady long game.

“They called me ‘The Train’ because I was always on the track,” Neumann said.

Mallon remembers clearly the time Neumann won the LPGA’s Tournament of Champions in 1996, by 11 strokes at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla. Neumann was the first player to put a 9-wood in the bag and the only one who could hold the greens that week.

“It really changed the game,” Mallon said.

Neumann won 13 LPGA titles among her 26 worldwide victories before she was slowed considerably by a bad back. She only recently rediscovered her love of the game.

Life threw Neumann a cruel curveball early into her retirement when her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year. He died on Jan. 20. Her mother, Ingegerd, also has been ill and can’t travel. There’s much to play for in Denver.

The silver flipflop charm hanging around Neumann’s neck and her golden tan suggest California beaches over Swedish ski slopes. Four years ago, Neumann became an American citizen. She now lives full time in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at Mission Hills, joining the masses of retirees who jet around in their own carts for a quick game.

Neumann has lived in the U.S. longer than she resided in Sweden. Exactly what percentage of her is American?

“When it comes to the Solheim, zero American,” she said, laughing.

For Mallon, one of the best parts of a Solheim Cup is getting to know the captains (Bradley, Whitworth, Carner, et al.) off the golf course. In Neumann, Mallon said, they will discover a fun-hearted Swede who loves to dance and celebrate life.

“She’s just good value, all the way around,” said Laura Davies, a longtime friend.

Davies, of course, was an early casualty of Neumann’s captaincy, being overlooked in favor of 17-year-old English fireball Charley Hull.

Neumann doesn’t mind having a young team – six rookies in all – because she anticipates energy in the team room.

“There’s a lot of young faces out there,” she said. “They’re aggressive. They’re not scared. They rip it and find it.”

Neumann initially turned down the captain’s job, thinking she wanted to move on with the next phase of her life. She was swayed by friends, family and players to reconsider. Neumann asked herself, What am I doing? If I say no now, they’re not going to ask me again, she thought.

Neumann called back and asked if the position was still available. Officials made her wait several weeks before giving her a second chance.

Rest assured, Lisa Newman won’t let it go to waste.

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