ON BOTH sides of the continental divide, things will look and feel a little bit unfamiliar when the 13th Solheim Cup matches tee-off on Friday morning at the Colorado Golf Club, just outside Denver.
For the first time since the biennial contest began at Lake Nona in 1990, Laura Davies will not be part of the 12-strong European line-up. And, across the aisle, there will be no sign of Hall of Famer Juli Inkster in the fresh-faced American side.
One will be missed a lot more than the other though. Whisper it, but the redoubtable Miss Davies, for all her fine qualities, is not, shall we say, the easiest individual (emphasis on individual) to deal with in a team environment. Inkster, on the other hand, is universally admired by all of her younger compatriots, commanding both respect and affection in equal doses. After nine Solheim appearances in US colours – during which she lost only once in singles – the absence of the 53-year-old Californian will be keenly felt.
“Juli has always been a great partner,” says former US Women’s Open champion Paula Creamer, who has teamed with Inkster in five Solheim matches. “I’m so comfortable in her company. And she was such a great player. I’ve always looked up to her both on and off the course. She has always been my role model.”
Still, as she freely admits, the last Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle in Ireland was a match too far for Inkster, who has ten major championships to her name, including three successive US Amateur titles. Especially during her last afternoon singles – a half with Davies – it was obvious that, for both, their best days have been and gone.
“I was kinda roped into playing last time,” admits Inkster with a sigh. “I wish I hadn’t. It was enough being assistant captain. I got no pleasure from playing Laura in that match. It felt like one Solheim too many for me. I had no fun. But I was talked into it. I’ll never play again.”
Still, chances are the relationship between this 31-times LPGA champion and the Solheim is far from done. Two years from now, Inkster is an absolute “stick-on” to be Meg Mallon’s successor as non-playing captain of the US side.
“If I’m ever captain, I won’t be the most demanding skipper,” says Inkster, with a big smile. “All I would require from my players would be to never give up. I don’t care if they play one practice round or 50. I’d tell them to do what they normally do to get ready. Then go play. I don’t want it to be this scary deal where they have to win. I want them to enjoy themselves. If they do that, they’ll play better anyway.
“There are a lot of new players on both sides this time. Which is great. It keeps things fresh. I’m not sure how it is going to go. But it will be a great occasion. There’s a lot of camaraderie on both sides. It’ll be great to watch, as it was last time. I really thought we had it, but we lost. That’s the beauty of the Solheim Cup and the beauty of match play.”
Alongside her many achievements on the course, Inkster has forever been one of the more eloquent members of a golfing generation that has always had to battle for the same level of recognition afforded their male counterparts. On the subject of the on-going stooshie regarding the all-maleness of the R&A and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, she is predictably frustrated.
“I don’t see anything changing any time soon,” she says with a shake of the head. “It’s going to take something like a top male professional saying he’s not going to play in the Open because he wants his daughters to have the same opportunities he has. It will take something like that to change minds.
“The people that make the rules, I just don’t know where they are coming from. They have to be above discrimination. But they don’t seem to see it that way. To me, this is a black-and-white issue. But they seem to think it is a huge grey area. It’s fine to have an all-male club, I have no problem with that. But don’t hold a major championship there.”
As for potential solutions, Inkster is one who sees more affirmative action as the way ahead. Whatever its merits, the policy of appeasement adopted by so many of the female game’s ruling bodies has failed to make any discernible difference, practically or otherwise.
“We’ve always tried to get along,” continues Inkster. “But it’s not working. Sometimes you just have to take a stand. It may hurt us for five years or whatever, but long-term it has to be the right thing to do. I feel like we have given in too often – and I include the LPGA in that.
“We need to make the men blink, which they don’t seem to be doing right now. I hate to say this, but they do seem to think the women’s game is secondary to the men. I’m not surprised to hear that many of the UK’s national newspapers – those that were apparently so outraged at Muirfield last month – didn’t send their golf correspondents to St Andrews [for the Ricoh British Women’s Open] last week. That’s what we deal with though.”
On a brighter note, Inkster sees a healthy future for the LPGA Tour as it expands more and more internationally, even if things are likely to get more difficult for working mothers.
“I think there is good and bad with how the LPGA Tour has gone over the last few years,” she says. “It’s good that we are becoming a worldwide tour. But the people I feel sorry for are the mums out there. It’s hard to take a child to Asia for five weeks. I was very fortunate that I raised my kids domestically. I could take them almost every week. Now though, it’s way tougher to play full-time and be a good mother.
“We have lost players because they wanted to have kids and a ‘normal’ life. Lorena Ochoa is one and, later in her life, Annika Sorenstam is another. And there will be more I’m sure. I don’t think you’ll see the likes of Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer playing at the age I am now, or even into their forties. They’ll be home with their families.”
Still, with her two daughters now in college, Inkster shows no sign of quitting the life she has enjoyed since turning professional in 1983. A competitor in 34 straight US Women’s Opens, she is rightly proud of her longevity.
“I still really enjoy it,” she says. “I play 15-16 weeks each year and I pick and choose which ones. I still get frustrated with my game and I know I’ll never be number one, but I’m OK with that. My consistency is not as good. I’ve lost some distance. But I don’t get wrapped up in the money list or the world rankings, anything like that. I’ve been there, done that. I play for only one reason – I love to compete.”
All in all, not a bad epitaph.