ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It’s funny how team golf works.
While Americans and Europeans have become marginalized in this modern era of the women’s game, the Solheim Cup has never been more relevant.
While Asians dominate the game as a whole, the Solheim Cup has ascended to new prominence as compelling theater.
American Lexi Thompson will be the only top-10 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings in this year’s Solheim Cup, but the nature of the intensifying rivalry between the United States and Europe in the biennial international team event makes that a mere footnote.
The Solheim Cup spotlights the one and only true rivalry today in the women’s game.
If the Solheim Cup wasn’t already a grudge match, it officially became so two years ago, when Norway’s Suzann Pettersen practically ignited an international incident over Europe’s lack of a concession in a fourball match in Germany.
The furor set off a debate pitting the Rules of Golf against sportsmanship, with hard lines drawn over whether Pettersen violated the spirit of the game in her refusal to concede a putt that American Alison Lee thought was conceded.
It left Lee in tears at the end of the match, and Pettersen in tears at the end of the day as the backlash on social media hit with brutish force.
Pettersen ended up throwing herself on the mercy of fandom, issuing a public apology on Instagram and then following up with an apology in a special Golf Channel interview.
“I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle and competition,” Pettersen wrote in her lengthy apology. “I was trying my hardest for my team and put the single match and the point that could be earned ahead of sportsmanship and the game of golf itself.”
Going to Ireland six years ago, the Solheim Cup’s fire appeared to be going out, with the Americans making the Europeans look overmatched after winning three consecutive events, but that seems like ancient history on the eve of this Ricoh Women’s British Open.
The Euros won with a dramatic late Sunday finish in Ireland in 2011, then punished the Americans in a record rout in Colorado in 2013, but the Euros watched the Americans beat them in a record Sunday comeback in Germany in 2015.
The embers are already stoked for Iowa with the heat promising to rise when the matches are re-engaged in two weeks.
There is more at stake than a major championship at Kingsbarns in St. Andrews this week. There are Solheim Cup roster spots to be won with double points in play. It’s the week’s electric subplot with qualifying concluding when the last putt is holed.
Clearly, Pettersen will be the top storyline going to Iowa. She insists the debacle in Germany is far behind her.
“I think the media was the one who kind of dragged that incident on and on and on, much more than what we players and whoever was involved did,” Pettersen said. “I feel like everyone that was involved kind of cleared that up fairly quickly in the aftermath and all moved on.”
European captain Annika Sorenstam hopes so with record Solheim Cup galleries expected at Des Moines Golf and Country Club.
“I would say that everybody has moved on,” Sorenstam said. “If there is somebody that wants to move on, that's Suzann. I think we'll all keep this in mind.
“Everybody learns from mistakes or incidents, I think we all learn from those. It just shows you that when you get together, how passionate, how when the adrenaline is pumping and just the competitiveness is so high, it's just amazing how some of these situations happen that we all, looking back at it, go, ‘How can this happen?’ It was not intentional. I think we are ready to move on and focus on the good parts, and just let the golf showcase itself.”
While Pettersen has played 13 times in the United States since that Solheim Cup incident, she knows the controversy will be revisited with Iowa’s approach.
“You do get reminded by media and some random fan here and there, but it was tough at the time,” Pettersen said. “It was a tough loss I think for the European side, that we actually lost the big lead we had going into the finals. I think people kind of forget. It was actually a massive comeback for the Americans to win it.”
Who’s going to help Pettersen make new memories in Des Moines? That’s among the big Solheim Cup questions to be answered at Kingsbarns.
Really, who is going to be left off the American and European rosters is as big a storyline as who is going to make the teams.
Half of the European team that lost in Germany two years ago isn’t certain of making the team Sorenstam will take to Iowa.
Four Americans who helped the United States make that epic comeback at St. Leon Rot may not be on this year’s team, including stalwarts Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.
With the struggling Ladies European Tour dealing with economic woes, Solheim Cup qualifying has been severely handcuffed. Five events have been scrapped from the schedule this year, including the Ladies European Masters, which was scheduled for September.
England’s Georgia Hall leads the LET Solheim Cup points list, but she has played in just four LET events outside the majors this year. She went two months without competing in a tournament before getting into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on a sponsor’s exemption.
England’s Florentyna Parker is second on the LET points list. She won the Mediterranean Ladies Open in April but is in a similar position to Hall.
They are virtual locks to make the European team on points. But as unknown commodities internationally, there’s a question whether Sorenstam will have to hide them in her lineup roster or whether they are poised to offer a jolt of important new help.
“I'm very, very impressed with Georgia,” Sorenstam said. “She is just very technically sound. I just like her attitude.”
Sorenstam also welcomes Parker’s winning momentum with her victory this spring at the Mediterranean Open. The challenge, Sorenstam said, is getting to know these young players quickly.
“We have tried to get some of these LET players to get playing opportunities, whether it's Symetra Tour or whether it's getting invites to LPGA events,” Sorenstam said. “Because some of these players – it’s not a secret – Georgia Hall and Florentyna Parker are leading in the LET points, but if they wouldn't have played on the LPGA, they wouldn't have had any tournament experience coming into August. And that's just the reality of it, but luckily they have. That's why Florentyna has been flying around the world – Korea, Thailand – just trying to get playing opportunities, and Georgia has played in the U.S. a few times.”
For the Euros, there will be four players guaranteed spots from atop the LET points list come Sunday’s conclusion of the Women’s British Open. Hall, Parker, England’s Mel Reid and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda currently hold those spots.
There will also be four players from atop the European Solheim Cup world rankings list. Pettersen, England’s Charley Hull, France’s Karine Icher and England’s Jodi Ewart Shadoff hold those spots.
That will leave Sorenstam with some tough choices as her four captain’s picks.
Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist is a lock as one of those. She may now be Europe’s best player. Because of her withdrawal from the Ladies Scottish Open with illness last week, Nordqvist won’t get the minimum LET starts to qualify on points or world rankings. She has to make it as a captain’s pick.
That leaves Solheim Cup veterans Sandra Gal and Caroline Masson of Germany, Azahara Munoz of Spain and Catriona Matthew of Scotland possibly fighting for the other three captain’s picks.
On the American side, eight players will make it on points. Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis, Gerina Piller, Cristie Kerr, Jessica Korda and Danielle Kang appear secure. Michelle Wie and Brittany Lang hold the final two spots, but even if they don’t make it on points, they’re looking like they could be locks to make it on the U.S. world rankings list.
The two highest ranked Americans not qualified on the points list will make it off the world rankings list. Brittany Lincicome (No. 42) and Lizette Salas (No. 45) hold those spots. Wie is No. 35 and Lang No. 37.
Though Nelly Korda is 27th on the U.S. points list, American captain Juli Inkster has made no secret she is high on her list of potential captain’s picks.
Solheim Cup veteran Angela Stanford joins Mo Martin, Austin Ernst, Marina Alex and Angel Yin as possible captain’s picks.
“I hate to disappoint anybody, but I'm going to take the players that are playing hot right now,” Inkster said.
The Women’s British Open is the last chance for players to earn points and impress Inkster and Sorenstam.