What a way to mark becoming the oldest European to play in the Solheim Cup. And what a way to provide even further inspiration for the six young Scottish girl golfers here this week as part of an initiative linked to the 2019 event at Gleneagles.
Step forward Catriona Matthew, who, quite simply, took coming in as an 11th-hour replacement in Des Moines in her stride as the 47-year-old joined forces with Karine Icher of France to give the visitors a 2.5-1.5 lead after a dramatic opening session in Iowa.
It began with Lexi Thompson hitting the first shot for the Americans to ten feet and Cristie Kerr holing for a sensational eagle, but the home fans had been silenced by the time Matthew and Icher backed up Georgia Hall winning on her debut in the company of Anna Nordqvist, as well as Mel Reid and Charley Hull securing a share of the spoils in that top tussle.
Handed the task of anchoring Europe in the morning foursomes by Annika Sorenstam, the duo produced a gutsy performance to beat former Women’s British Open champion Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller on the last green after getting their noses in front in the match for the first time with just two holes to play. The hard-earned victory took Matthew’s points tally in the biennial event to 20, making her the third most successful European in its history behind Laura Davies (25) and the aforementioned Sorenstam (24).
No wonder the Swede, who is leading Europe for the first time in the event as they bid to reclaim the trophy following a one-point defeat at St Leon-Rot in Germany two years ago, felt confident that her side hadn’t been weakened in any way by Matthew, who, remember, came here as a vice captain, having to step into a playing role due to Norwegian Suzann Pettersen being forced to pull out after injuring her back.
On her ninth appearance, Matthew was magnificent, as was her partner. They had to dig in after finding themselves two down following birdies from their opponents at the short third and par-5 fourth. Matthew holed from ten feet at the eighth to stop them going further behind and that proved a big moment in the game.
At a reception on Wednesday night, one of those youngsters here through #Project19, an initiative aimed at getting some Scottish representation in the Junior Solheim Cup on home soil in two years’ time, spoke about how Matthew is a great role model. The way the North Berwick woman played on the back nine certainly showed why.
The 13th, a 446-yard par-4, had proved the toughest of the day in the three matches in front, but Matthew hit a majestic 5-wood to 20 feet and Icher, a 38-year-old who is making her fourth appearance in the event, rolled in the putt. The Europeans also won the next with a birdie, Matthew setting up the chance again by hitting her tee shot at the 163-yard par-3 to around 15 feet and her partner once more finishing the job off.
Rattled by that fightback, the Americans sloppily three-putted the 16th before doing likewise at the last, where Piller pulled a six-footer to square the match. In between, Matthew had produced a brilliant recovery from an awkward spot in a greenside bunker. She almost holed it, in fact, despite standing with her feet outside the trap.
“I was super-nervous at the start,” admitted the Scottish No 1. “It doesn’t matter how many of these you play in, you are always going to be nervous. But I managed to get over them and I always enjoy this event. The whole crowd, the atmosphere, playing in the team, it gets the juices flowing. If you don’t get going for this, then there’s no point playing golf. This is my favourite event.”
Asked if she could have envisaged earning such an important early point a week beforehand, she added: “Absolutely not. I was all set to be cheering the team on from the sidelines. It was tough what happened to Suzann. No-one likes to see that, but I stepped in and had a good partner today.”
The pair won playing fourballs in the 2015 event and looked very comfortable in each other’s company again in the more difficult alternate shot format. “We were under-par, which is always good in foursomes,” said Matthew. “They played well on the front nine and we stayed with them before throwing in a couple of birdies.
“We didn’t do much wrong on that front nine and we just told ourselves to keep going and stick in. We had those good birdies at 13, where I hit a 5-wood from about 205 yards and Karine holed the putt for a big momentum swing, and 14 to get us back into it.”
Putting had been Matthew’s problem as she failed to sparkle in the final two counting events, failing to get into the mix in the Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open at Dundonald Links before missing the cut in the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Kingsbarns. Knocking in a six-footer for a half at the first was just the confidence boost she needed, therefore.
“That settled me down,” she admitted. “You are freed up a bit more in match play and not so worried about the putt coming back. It was good playing with Karine again. The two oldies together, though she might not like that.”
Had Sorenstam sent her most experienced campaigner out with any special message on the day she took over from Laura Davies by just four days as the oldest European to tee it up in this event? “No,” she replied.
“We just all wanted to go out and win. She spoke to us on the back nine and told us just to keep going.” And they did. “It’s a good start,” said Matthew. “If you look at the world rankings, Stacy and Gerina are well ahead of us. They are great players and this is a great win for us.”