‘So much more than golf’: Europe ready to write a new Solheim Cup chapter

Competition’s DNA combines an outer persona of fun with an assassin’s inner steel

In terms of its short lifespan, the Solheim Cup has grown quickly. Only initiated as recently as 1990, the biennial tournament between professional golfers representing Europe and those from the United States has gone beyond achieving the initial intent of providing a similar opportunity to women as the Ryder Cup gave to men.

Since its inception, the DNA of the Solheim Cup has showcased an outer persona of fun - with players literally wearing their colours, with temporary tattoos of European flags or Old Glory on their faces - which has masked an assassin’s inner steel for, time and time again, someone has shouldered the responsibility of delivering a knockout blow when it mattered. Stand up, especially, Suzann Pettersen.

And, it is fair to say the Solheim Cup has developed its own life form; not just an imitator of the men’s Ryder Cup, it has grown into a genuinely competitive match with any tag of favourites as much a burden as an advantage.

If the initial 11 stagings of the match went along predictable enough lines with the USA being the dominant force, winning eight to Europe’s three, the tide has turned in more recent times. Indeed, of the last five Solheim Cup matches, Europe have won three of them. Intriguingly, the sea change in Europe’s favour started with the 2011 match at Killeen Castle in Co Meath where the European underdogs - inspired by Norway’s Pettersen - prevented a fourth successive win by the Americans in the competition.


Best feeling

“This is the best feeling, even better than Barseback (referencing the 2003 success in Sweden) . . . . to win here, where the challenge was so big,” said Pettersen, the Norwegian who fashioned a dramatic singles win over Michelle Wie - birdieing each of the last three holes - in Europe’s 15-13 win in which she provided a silver lining in the midst of darkened skies. The US team of superstars were left with their own dark clouds.

Two years later, Europe spectacularly defended the Waterford Crystal trophy for the first time on American soil, winning by a record 18-10 margin.

From a point where Europe were seen as valiant opposition but more often than not finishing up as the vanquished, a transformation - of equals against equals - took place. Karsten Solheim’s brainchild had grown into a prized being, a standalone entity that was no longer mimicking the Ryder Cup.

Few have the Solheim Cup's DNA embedded in their bloodstream as much as Laura Davies. The English player's appearance at Killeen Castle in 2011 was her 12th - a record - and, this week, at Inverness Country Club in Toledo, Ohio, she is again part of the team as a vice-captain to Catriona Matthew.

It's a European team that features four rookies - Leona Maguire, Matilda Castren, Nanna Koerstz Hadsen and Sophia Popov - but with a brains trust in the backroom team that lives and breathes Solheim Cup.

In recounting her own first Solheim Cup start in that inaugural 1990 match at Lake Nona, Davies this week recalled: “We were all rookies. We’d never played in it before, we were all terrified at the same time, the European team. I think the Americans had a lot of experience and it was really nerve wracking.

“I remember the first tee like it was yesterday. [Nancy] Lopez and [Pat] Bradley walked on the first tee and they were opponents for that foursomes, [there] was also excitement. That’s what? 15, 16 Solheims ago? There’s no pressure as vice-captain but you feel nervous for the players . . . . the main thing is to just enjoy it, because it is nerve wracking but you’ve worked so hard to get here, don’t let the nerves overtake you.”

Pettersen, too, is on vice-captain duties in Ohio. More than most, she’s had her Solheim Cup moments. In her debut, in 2002, she dropped the F bomb live on air after a miscued shot. In the 2015 match (a defeat) in Germany, she controversially called a penalty on American rookie Alison Lee for taking up her ball on the 17th green in believing the putt had been conceded. On the flip side, she was the star at Killeen Castle and again in the win at Gleneagles in 2019.


“What I enjoyed most is probably the Solheim (Cup) is so much more than golf, you build a bond with the players on your team and across the other team and share moments that will last forever. What I’ve enjoyed the most (has) been able to play with a lot of icons in women’s golf through all the years,” said Pettersen.

On her call-up as a captain’s pick, Maguire referred to captain Matthew as “a legend” and, indeed, the Scot - popularly known by her nickname, Beany - is seeking to make some history of her own by becoming the first European captain to win back-to-back Solheim Cups.

“I think the fact we have only won once in Colorado (in 2013) shows how difficult it is to win away from home. Obviously this year it is going to be more difficult and more of a challenge for us (with mainly US fans on site) but I think in a way we can nearly rise to that.

“We’re expecting basically about zero fans, a few Europeans who perhaps are living in the states. It certainly won’t be the same presence that we normally have at an away match . . . . but I think the players are going to be mentally prepared. It gives them another challenge and another thing to try and overcome and get that victory.”

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times