WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – They’re giants of the game.
This Solheim Cup intrigues on a number of levels, but it starts at the top now that Suzann Pettersen is on the sidelines.
Annika Sorenstam vs. Juli Inkster.
They won’t hit a shot this week, but Europe’s Sorenstam and America’s Inkster do more than control the pieces on the game’s chessboard as captains here at Des Moines Golf and Country Club. They’re in charge of pairings, devising strategies and creating what they hope will be winning atmospheres.
While they respect each other and are intent on upholding the Solheim family’s honorable intentions creating this biennial international team event, they want to beat each other.
They’re both Hall of Famers, rivals from way back.
They’re highly competitive athletes, who don’t like losing, especially to each other.
“There’s a sense that there is no love lost between the two, that they're just from two completely different worlds in the way they live life, their philosophical approach to life, and playing golf,” said Kay Cockerill, a Golf Channel analyst and friend to Inkster. “I just think it's a very interesting dynamic between the two. It will be interesting if we see any kind of head bumping or intense conversations between the two, which could very well happen.”
It happened two years ago in Germany, but it ended up being overshadowed by the furor surrounding Pettersen and the lack of concession to Alison Lee, which fueled the United States’ historic comeback in singles.
Before that, there was Inkster’s Saturday showdown with Sorenstam over whether Sorenstam violated the captain’s agreement by giving advice to European players. Inkster and Sorenstam squared off in a heated discussion before the afternoon fourballs, with Sorenstam insisting she was wrongly accused. The agreement states that only captains can give advice during the competition. Sorenstam was a vice captain.
“I was extremely hurt,” Sorenstam said back then. “I knew the lesson from Colorado. I was insulted, and I addressed it with Juli.”
Back in Colorado two years before that, Sorenstam was accused of relaying advice to a player through a European caddie.
“Juli is not a confrontational person,” said Pat Hurst, an American assistant captain and long-time friend to Inkster. “But Juli’s going to protect her team, stick up for her players, no matter what.”
Sorenstam was more of a loner on tour in her prime, with the distance she kept as a competitor helping to cultivate her intimidating aura.
Inkster was more approachable, immensely popular, someone who moved easily from one group to another on a practice range, teasing and prodding players and caddies alike.
Sorenstam dominated her era, which overlapped with Inkster’s. They were as different as players as they were as people.
Sorenstam, 46 was a big hitter, the cool Swede who won with cold precision, with an intimidating aura that felt like it gave her a two-shot lead before she reached the first tee.
She won 72 LPGA titles, more than anyone not named Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). She won 10 majors, more than everyone but Patty Berg (15) and Wright (13). She won with a sledgehammer.
Inkster, 57, won as much with grit as she did talent. She won 31 LPGA titles, seven majors.
While Sorenstam’s record towered over most anyone she stared down, there was no staring down Inkster.
“Juli is one of the few people that, probably, can show up Annika, and has shown her up on the golf course,” Cockerill said. “I think Annika really looks up to and admires Juli and respects her, and she’s, perhaps, one of the few people that could intimidate Annika.”
Sorenstam and Inkster played against each other in six Solheim Cups.
Inkster’s American teams won four of them.
Inkster was 2-0 vs. Sorenstam in those matches. She routed Annika 5 and 4 in the leadoff singles match in Scotland in 2000. She teamed with Beth Daniel to take down Sorenstam and Carin Koch, 1 up, in fourballs in 2003. That was the first time the Solheim Cup was played in Sweden, Sorenstam’s homeland.
Memorably, Inkster also denied Sorenstam a chance to win the U.S. Women’s Open at Prairie Dunes in 2002. Sorenstam took a two-shot lead into the final round, but Inkster put up a 66 on her and beat her by two shots.
It may be history, as they say, but history keeps score.
Sorenstam and Inkster are both champions, but they took such different paths to their trophies. It makes for a compelling back story in how they’ll shape a path to the trophy that is awaiting at this week’s end, the Solheim Cup.
The captain’s matchup adds to the heightening drama in these matches.
“The Solheim Cup’s intensity level has been increasing, and the rivalry has been getting bigger and more intense as the years have been going along,” said Golf Channel’s Karen Stupples, a two-time Solheim Cup player from England. “It’s the little things that happen during the course of the matches that forms big rivalries, and that makes it really interesting for the fans and spectators watching it on TV.”
Sorenstam and Inkster’s matchup makes it more compelling.