IT WAS at Muirfield Village in Ohio in 1998 that Catriona Matthew made her Solheim Cup debut. Fifteen years on and the Scot is now the most experienced member of a European team that have their sights set on history at Colorado Golf Club near Denver this weekend.
This is Matthew’s seventh appearance in a contest she has come to label as her favourite week in the golfing season. And since her nervy start – it was a debut singles defeat to Sheri Steinhauer that secured a US victory – she has piled up many highlights.
At Barseback in Sweden in 2003 she had the honour of claiming the winning point for Europe with a singles win over Rosie Jones.
And, two years ago at Killeen Castle in Ireland, she led the team out in the final day singles and plonked an intimidating 6 & 5 win over American star Paula Creamer at the top of the board.
It was a record-equalling fifth successive singles Solheim win for Matthew and a vital point in the ultimate 15-13 triumph for Europe. In 25 matches, she has a pretty impressive haul of 15 points.
When the action gets underway here in Colorado tomorrow, Matthew’s goal is to spearhead Europe to a first ever victory on US soil. She is set to be a key player, as acknowledged by European Captain Liselotte Neumann.
“Catriona has stepped into a role as a leader,” noted the Swede. “She’s been great. I’ve paired her up with some rookies and she knows she has experience to pass on. She’s doing a good job.”
Matthew, just ten days short of her 44th birthday, appears to be getting better as she gets older. The 2009 Women’s British Open winner has had top 15 finishes in all four majors this season – including a play-off defeat to world No.1 Inbee Park at the LPGA Championship – and she is currently at an all-time high of No.8 in the Rolex world rankings.
This is in a season when her older daughter Katie has started school in North Berwick – younger one Sophie is at nursery – and her place of work is primarily the US, with trips to Asia thrown in for good measure.
“It is more difficult with the kids, but Graeme [her husband] is not travelling with me so much,” she conceded. “But it’s easier when you’re playing well and I really am delighted with my form this year.”
There is a sense of new era dawning in women’s golf with both the US and Europe missing notable taliswomen. For the first time in the Cup’s 13 stagings, Laura Davies will not pounding the fairways in European colours, while Juli Inkster, who became the oldest player at the age of 51 in Ireland two years ago, is absent from the home line-up.
Matthew and Suzann Pettersen, the feisty Norwegian, are both making their seventh showing for Europe, while the most decorated US player is Cristie Kerr, who has played in the last six.
Both teams are the youngest ever, with the US average age just 26 and Europe’s 27. England’s Charley Hull, at 17, becomes the youngest Solheim Cupper and Lexi Thompson, at 18, the youngest to wear American colours.
Europe has half a dozen rookies in Hull, Spain’s Beatriz Recari and Carlota Ciganda, Italy’s Giulia Sergas, German Caroline Masson and England’s Jodi Ewart-Shadoff.
But Matthew has no fear for the young guns. “It’s scary to think someone is playing Solheim Cup at 17,” said the player who didn’t even turn professional until her mid-twenties. “But, although they are rookies, they all have a lot of experience.”
Matthew, who is 13th on the LPGA money list with around £350,00 in earnings, has Graeme as her caddie this week – and she can’t wait to get started.
“I just love the Solheim and it almost seems to get better every time,” she said. “I’m a little bit more relaxed now and just really enjoy every moment.”
With home advantage, the US will be favourites to clock up victory number nine, but US Captain Meg Mallon is wary of the tag and memories of Dalmahoy 1992 still rankle.
“I was in the first team that was beaten by Europe in 1992 and we were heavy, heavy favourites.” said the voice of experience. “We had maybe eight Hall of Famers now in the line-up.
“We were beaten by a young team that probably had eight players that no one in the US had even heard of. That’s the thing that I have to remind my players. Underdogs can be very scary and we have to be aware that in matchplay it can be anyone’s day.”
Matthew is the only Scot in the team, but Pam Wright, who played in the first three matches, and Kathryn Imrie, a member of the 1996 side, are among the European support group.
And an inspirational video included a “best of luck” message from Scotland’s winning Ryder Cup player and captain Colin Montgomerie.
In the Junior Solheim Cup at nearby Inverness Golf Club, Europe, captained by Scot Janice Moodie, were tied 6-all with the USA after the opening day.