THE contrast is stark. Set alongside the seemingly endless build-up – months of speculation, conjecture and opinion – the female equivalent of the commercial juggernaut that is the Ryder Cup, the Solheim Cup, is little more than an afterthought. Which is not so surprising. Given golf’s often-pathetic record in the area of gender, the harsh truth is that only stalwart fans of the women’s game care more than a little about the biennial contest between the best female players from the United States and Europe.
Such indifference is perhaps a little more understandable when a glance at the women’s world rankings reveals that 19 of the best 30 players are ineligible for this coming week’s Solheim Cup. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to conclude that South Korea would comfortably see off a combined US/Europe side.
Still, those who cannot see this great event’s inherent attraction are missing the point by a wide margin. Team match-play golf at any level has an appeal that takes both participant and spectator to places not ordinarily reached by an almost constant diet of 72-hole stroke-play events. One only has to witness the extraordinary effect Ryder or Solheim pressure has on those representing their country/continent to see how much it means to all concerned.
“A lot of my passion for the Solheim Cup is rooted in a pretty embarrassing loss in the 1986 Curtis Cup [the amateur version of the Solheim Cup],” says Dottie Pepper, whose winning percentage from six appearances (70) is the highest-ever on the American side. “We weren’t prepared very well and had no idea what the matches were about. We got beat badly. At the closing ceremony they were lowering the American flag and I vowed that I would be better prepared next time.
“Four years later I was in the first Solheim Cup side. Just. I made a par on the last hole of the Centel Classic in Tallahassee to claim the last spot. I was so determined to make the team and do better than I had in ’86.”
So far, Pepper’s wish has generally come true. The US leads 8-5 as we head into the 14th Solheim at St Leon Rot in Germany, but the current trend is in Europe’s favour. The Old World has won the last two matches, an almost complete contrast with the early days of the contest, when Europe claimed the trophy only once during the 1990s.
That lone victory was achieved in Scotland, at Dalmahoy in 1992. Inspired by an unbeaten Laura Davies – and irritated by US player Beth Daniel’s assertion that only Liselotte Neumann of the Europeans would make it into the American team – the home side romped home by five clear points, 11∫-6∫.
“Dalmahoy put the Solheim Cup on the map,” admits Pepper, who was part of that US side and lost to Scotland’s Dale Reid in the final-day singles. “From the perspective of the Cup, Europe winning was probably the best thing that could have happened. Going in, no one would have imagined they could win. Our team was stacked. Yet we fell flat on our faces. But it was a great thing for the matches. I know we were a lot more determined to win two years later.”
In more recent times, however, it has been increasingly easy to question the level of commitment displayed by many of those representing the stars and stripes. Seemingly more concerned with their make-up, face paint and fashion sense, America have performed poorly in the last two matches.
“There were times that I wanted to run out there and scream, ‘what are you doing?’” says Pepper, who served as an assistant captain at the Colorado Golf Club two years ago. “But it was a great experience seeing all that goes on behind the scenes. It was disappointing to see the amount of energy the American players used up on stuff that really didn’t matter. I’m talking about face paint and other things that should never be a priority when you are trying to win matches.
“When play was suspended because of bad weather, [US captain] Meg Mallon asked the players to stay off social media and they just couldn’t do it. That was a waste of energy in a situation that was highly competitive. But they seemed shocked that they had been asked to do something they normally wouldn’t do. For me, that was the most disappointing aspect of the whole week.”
In complete contrast with such nonsense, the only Scot in the European side this week, Catriona Matthew, personifies everything a captain might want from a team member. Blessed with the ideal temperament for golf – her placid demeanour never offers any emotional encouragement to an opponent – Matthew will be making her eighth appearance in Europe’s colours at the age of 46.
“Catriona has long been a great Solheim player,” says Pepper. “You hardly notice she is there but when you look up she has won three points. She will be a tremendous captain sometime. She commands the respect of her own players and everyone on the US side too.
“Maybe the best thing about her is that [European skipper] Carin Koch will be able to pair her with anyone in the team. She is just so steady and consistent. She hits it straighter than people give her credit for. She hits it longer than people give her credit for. And she is able to hole the putt that needs to be holed. Plus, she gives you no clue as to how she is feeling. She is a silent assassin, one you want on your side.”
On current form then – and with momentum on their side – the Europeans will enter the three-day contest as warm favourites to record a third successive victory. There certainly won’t be a lack of experience on either side. Unusually, the European team does not contain even one Solheim rookie and boasts 31 previous appearances. Collectively, the Americans have 36 caps and only one newcomer in Alison Lee.
“On form, it looks like the Europeans should win,” confirms Pepper. “The standard of play on the Ladies European Tour is clearly improving. Look at the likes of Caroline Masson and Mel Reid. They are legitimately really good players. In past Solheim Cups it was possible to go through the European team and pick out the obvious weaknesses. You can’t do that any more.
“Which is not to say the Europeans can’t be beaten. [US captain] Juli Inkster wasn’t too adventurous with her two picks – she went with Brittany Lang and Creamer, 11 and 12 on the qualifying list. And I think there is a chance Michelle Wie won’t be able to play, given her physical condition. She certainly isn’t someone her captain will be able to call on to play 36 holes in one day. So the combination of the Americans not playing that great and the fact that the Europeans will have the crowd on their side, makes me think a home win is the more likely result.”