John Huggan: Europeans will do well to lose by eight points at the Solheim Cup
IT'S ONLY a small wager, but – sadly – I'm quietly confident of collecting. Should the European side that will line up in this week's Solheim Cup at Rich Harvest Farms near Chicago capitulate by eight points or more to their formidable-looking American opponents, then the £201,965 Catriona Matthew picked up for winning the recent Women's British Open at Royal Lytham is going to be reduced by a tenner.
On this occasion, Scotland's best golfer is betting with her heart rather than her head.
This thing isn't going to be close. In fact, an eight-point loss would represent a moral victory for a European side that is way, way out of its depth. By way of example, hands up those who have heard of either Tania Elosegui or Diana Luna. Anyone? Thought not.
And let's not even get into the fact that the leading Solheim qualifier from the Ladies European Tour (Scottish Third Division versus the Premiership that is the LPGA), Gwladys Nocera, opened the aforementioned Women's British Open with a less than stellar 91. Ninety-one! Or that Laura Davies is now so far past her best that her best is available only on sepia-coloured cine-film. Or that Helen Alfredsson is a terrible yipper from short range under pressure. Or that perhaps the best European player, Norway's Suzann Pettersen, missed the cut at Lytham.
Over the years the Solheim Cup has been a lot of fun to watch, but one has stuck with me. As the 2003 Solheim Cup in Sweden reached its unexpectedly early climax in only the sixth of the 12 last-day singles matches, those European players who had already finished – Janice Moodie, Carin Koch, Sophie Gustafson, Iben Tinning, Annika Sorenstam and Ana Belen Sanchez – were closely gathered around Barseback's 17th green watching Rosie Jones putt for birdie. The American, two down with two to play against Matthew, "Beany" to her pals, had to make her putt to have any chance of extending the match. With Matthew ten feet away in two shots at the par-4, nothing less than birdie would do.
Anyway, it wasn't to be. When Jones missed her lengthy putt, she conceded the match – and the cup – to the Europeans, whose obvious togetherness in that time of victory epitomised perfectly the extra dimension team matches bring to this most individual of sports. Even the normally stoic Beany was bouncing.
Just as the Ryder Cup has become the most eagerly-anticipated week in men's golf, so the Solheim Cup has followed suit in the women's game. Which is no surprise. The added spice that match play brings to any event – plus more than a dash of rampant nationalism – elevates the stature of both.
Think about it: when does stroke play become interesting? That's right; when it turns into match play over the closing holes. And when is the cut and thrust of match play at its most vivid? Right again – when the vulgarity of cash is removed in favour of pride and patriotism. For all of that to work, however, the matches need to be at least reasonably close. Which they have been in the past, even if the Europeans are perennial underdogs.
"You know how dogs don't like cats, well, most British players take most pleasure from beating Americans," says Mickey Walker, who led the Europeans in the first five Solheim Cups. "It's instinctive. The Americans are not always good winners and they dominated the women's game for a long time. That added up to a lot of incentive for the underdogs. No European team of mine ever needed motivating."
On the other side of that coin, the extra dimension head-to-head, continent-to-country match play brings with it has inevitably provoked extreme emotions on both sides. And with that emotion has come incident, not always of the kind those involved will look back on with pride.
In no particular order, the Solheim Cup has had numerous instances of appalling etiquette, nearly all of them provoking bad feeling along the way. There was the dreadful Dottie Pepper at the Greenbrier in 1994, screaming 'yes!' as an opponent, Davies, missed a putt for a half.
There was Michelle McGann and Meg Mallon – neither of whom fights in the lightweight class – deciding it was okay to stand on Sorenstam's putting line during a four-ball match in the '96 matches at St Pierre in Wales.
There was Pat Hurst and Kelli Robbins unsportingly demanding that Sorenstam replay her holed chip shot at Loch Lomond in 2000.
There was Moodie selfishly insisting on playing Loch Lomond's final hole against Nancy Scranton in pitch darkness, long after the destination of the trophy had been decided.
There was European captain Catrin Nilsmark labelling members of the US side, "bitches" – all right, Cristie Kerr – before the 2001 matches.
There was Pettersen's uttering of the world's favourite curse word – not "flip" – live on NBC.
And, on the lighter side, there was the perplexed look on Pamela Wright of Scotland's face as she hoisted what turned out to be the flag of Nova Scotia (white background, blue cross) during the '94 opening ceremony. All of which only adds spice to an already volatile cocktail.
"Everyone wants to beat the Americans," confirms Alison Nicholas, six times a European team member and this year the non-playing captain. "They misinterpret our sporting mentality at times. I think they think we don't like them, which isn't the case at all. To us, there is nothing better than beating your mates. It certainly doesn't mean you don't like them."
This plea for understanding is echoed by Davies, a Solheim Cup ever-present, record points scorer and iconic leader of the old world side. "A lot of the Americans on their teams are good friends of mine," she smiles. "There's nothing like shaking hands with your mates knowing you've just beaten them."
The format helps, of course. In match play you have to have winners and losers: there are no congratulatory hugs or large cheques for those who come second, facts that have been especially noticeable in the more individualistic Yanks. Any sense of oneness, indeed, has belonged almost exclusively to the Europeans. Typically, but not perennially, Uncle Sam's nieces have fared better in singles play.
"The pressure is different," claims Matthew. "Normally you are out there for yourself, but suddenly you have people rushing out to cheer you on. Getting the winning point in '03 was a big thing for me. Then again, I've also had the 'pleasure' of losing the match that lost the Cup at Muirfield Village in '98. As the Americans were celebrating, no one knew what to say to me. It was very flat and empty."
So there you have it, the Solheim Cup: a glorious smorgasbord of all that is good – and sometimes bad – about golf in its most psychologically revealing form. If only we had a halfway decent team.
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