2019 Solheim Cup Preview
CATRIONA MATTHEW leads Europe into the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles this week, knowing that the American team will be favourites to win the event for a third successive time. The last time the teams met, two years ago at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, Iowa, the US cruised to a 16.5-11.5 victory. Two years earlier Juli Inkster’s side won a thrilling match 14.5-13.5, and Inkster will once again captain the Americans.
Matthew is hoping that home advantage will count. Since the inception of the Solheim Cup in 1990, it's been held in Scotland twice, at Dalmahoy in 1992 and at Loch Lomond in 2000. Europe won both times. That stat is not lost on the 2019 captain. "It's not often as European captain that you actually get to do it in your home country," says Matthew. After Swedes Helen Alfredsson and Catrin Nilsmark and Scotland's Dale Reid, she will be the fourth.
"If we win, it'll be right up there with my best days in golf, including winning the British Open 10 years ago. It's a great honour, but there's definitely going to be extra extra pressure. I don't think we've ever lost in Scotland, so more pressure on me there. Obviously I've played in quite a few of these, but this is a completely different thing. As captain, you're on the sidelines, you're watching. I'll now get the perspective that my poor mum and dad had for all those years walking around and watching me play.
"The setting of the mood is a big part of my job. Getting a nice relaxed atmosphere is vital. Getting the team all gelling together is probably the most important thing. We've spent a lot of time thinking about pairings - matching the right personalities with the right golf games with the right golf ball. It's key that you're comfortable with the person you're playing with. If you're not all that comfortable then you're going to be a little bit on edge."
It is going to be a tough task for Matthew and her team. The USA have won 10 times, Europe on five occasions. The USA have five players in the world's top-20, whereas Europe have one. The visitors have 14 in the top-50. Europe have only six. Unsurprisingly then, the Americans are odds-on favourites to triumph over the course upon which Paul McGinley’s European team thrashed Tom Watson’s USA side back in 2014.
With women’s golf now being dominated by South Koreans, this USA team hardly comprises household names. So why are they favourites? One of the reasons is Lexi Thompson, an ever-present in the team since making her debut as an 18-year-old at the 2013 edition in Colorado. She will be making her fourth appearance in the contest at Gleneagles after qualifying as the highest placed player on America’s Solheim Cup points list.
The big-hitting Thompson hasn’t always had it her own way in this contest. She lost her first two fourball matches alongside Stacy Lewis and Paula Creamer, respectively, before winning her singles match 4&3 against Caroline Masson. One of only two wins by USA players on the Sunday, Thompson’s impressive display was not enough to rescue the match as Europe completed a historic first win on American soil.
However, she did not have to wait long for her chance to get revenge. Thompson enjoyed a perfect start at St. Leon-Rot in Germany with a foursomes victory alongside Cristie Kerr. She never looked back after that first success in the format and finished the 2015 Solheim Cup with an unbeaten record of two wins and two halves from her four matches. Her three-point haul was crucial in helping USA complete a stunning comeback triumph as they overhauled Europe’s 10-6 overnight lead by winning 8.5 points in the singles.
And having tasted Solheim Cup victory for the first time, Thompson was never going to miss the chance to be part of the team that defended the title at Des Moines in Iowa. A stellar season on the LPGA Tour, including one victory and five runner-up finishes, saw her qualify automatically for Inkster’s team at the top of the American points list. Reuniting her successful partnership with Kerr, the pair found themselves dormie-2 in their opening foursomes match before staging a last-ditch comeback to halve the match.
They followed that up with two victories from two matches in the Saturday foursomes and fourballs to give America a commanding 10.5-5.5 lead going into the singles.
Thompson then halved her final match in a Solheim Cup classic against Anna Nordqvist to finish unbeaten once again and help secure a comfortable 16.5-11.5 victory for the hosts. She has endured some well-publicised personal issues but has now put those firmly behind her and is chomping at the bit to lead her country to victory at Gleneagles.
Look out, too for Nelly Korda. Only Thompson gathered more qualification points than the 21-year-old rookie from Florida, who will be joined by her older sister Jessica in the USA team. Nelly was a member of the 2015 US Junior Solheim Cup team after enjoying a magnificent amateur career. She helped her country secure a 13-11 success at St. Leon-Rot in Germany before turning professional a year later. Her first pro victory came at the Sioux Falls GreatLIFE Challenge after shooting rounds of 68, 67, 69 and 66. Ending the season ninth on the money list, Korda earned her LPGA Tour card for 2017 before claiming her first win the following year at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Taiwan Championship.
The victory in Taoyuan made her and Jessica the third pair of sisters to win in LPGA history, joining the Jutanugarn sisters Moriya and Ariya and Charlotta and Annika Sorenstam. Her fine form continued throughout 2018 as she finished runner-up at the Tour Championship and third at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. A second LPGA Tour triumph followed at the start of 2019 when she won the Australian Open seven years after sister Jessica won the same event. And with the win representing her fourth top-five finish in five LPGA starts, Korda broke into the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time, moving up from 16th to ninth.
But don’t write off the Europeans. Although she hasn’t had the best of seasons, Georgia Hall can draw on the memories of her magnificent victory at the 2018 British Women’s Open, where she outplayed the best golfers in the world over 72 holes at Royal Lytham. And then there is the irrepressible Charley Hull, an inspirational golfer who simply adores head-to-head golf. Still only 23, she would be the first to admit that her form in the majors this season has been pretty disappointing, but the Solheim Cup is different. It brings out the best in her, just as the Ryder Cup did with Colin Montgomerie. If Matthew is looking for somebody to hole a 15-foot putt on the final green to secure the trophy then there is nobody she would rather see standing over that putt.
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