ST. LEON-ROT, Germany – The Americans better not go home without the Solheim Cup again.
They won’t like what’s waiting for them.
No U.S. Solheim Cup team has lost three consecutive times, and so you can be sure any postmortem won’t be pretty.
The Solheim Cup used to be a celebration of everything that’s right with American women’s golf, but another loss turns that dynamic on its head. All of a sudden it’s a shining example of what’s wrong. All of a sudden it’s perceived as a window into the heart and soul of the top American women in the game, or the lack thereof.
That’s why what happens Sunday is so magnified now.
And that’s why the American rally in Saturday afternoon fourballs was so important in dramatically tilting how this Solheim Cup may be remembered.
“We really have an opportunity to flip this thing in our favor,” Stacy Lewis said.
Lewis was talking about Sunday morning and the resumption of the suspended fourballs and how the Americans can flip momentum their way going into singles, but she could have been talking about the bigger picture, the way American women’s golf is viewed.
Falling behind 8-4 after Saturday morning foursomes, the Americans looked like they might be on their way to being embarrassed in another rout, but they rallied hard Saturday afternoon. The American duo of Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson led the way, beating the tough Spaniard tandem of Carlota Ciganda and Azahara Munoz, 3 and 2.
Kerr and Thompson are 2-0-1 in this competition. They’re 4-0-1 as partners dating back to last year’s International Crown, where they were first paired. Lewis, the highest ranked American player, was a large part of Saturday’s rebound, too. She found her form when the Americans most needed it, finding a spark with a new partner, Gerina Piller, who was also a vital component in Saturday’s rally.
The Americans are building momentum, but with the fourballs suspended due to darkness, so much still hangs in the balance in Sunday morning’s resumption of play.
The Americans closed out a victory in one of the fourball matches, but there are three remaining matches, and they’re all tight, with three holes or less to play in each of them. The Americans could end up taking all three for a sweep of the fourballs to pull to an 8-8 tie going into singles. Or they could lose them all and limp into singles down 11-5.
“Tomorrow is obviously really important,” Lewis said. “Going into singles, you don't want to be in our current deficit. We've got to get out there and be aggressive, just like we've been playing today and all week. I think our focus will be there in the morning.”
You could argue there was a time we didn’t make enough of what the Solheim Cup stage means to the women’s game. Now you can argue we make too much.
You want your fans to care intensely about a competition? This is what comes with it. Everything becomes magnified. There will be overreactions to winning, just as surely as there will be overreactions to losing.
We saw the Solheim Cup’s power to magnify evident before the first shot was struck this week. We saw it in two important voices in the sport taking American women to task.
Jaime Diaz at Golf Digest used the eve of the Solheim Cup to evaluate what’s wrong with the American women’s game in the wake of South Korea’s emergence as a force more than a decade ago.
“Among U.S. players – perhaps in self-defense – there’s an increasing drift toward style over substance,” Diaz wrote. “Instagram accounts, good looks and general buzz seem as important as performance, if not more so ...
“The U.S. pattern of becoming a star without commensurate results breeds entitlement and competitive softness. Inevitably, American women are getting outplayed by golfers who have placed substance over style, and simply want it more.”
At ESPNW, Dottie Pepper, the TV analyst and former LPGA star, was equally heavy handed in a story she wrote questioning the way the best American players have approached the Solheim Cup in this era. She criticized “key players” for failing to appreciate the special honor and privilege that is integral to the event. She said she observed an “attitude of inconvenience and entitlement” firsthand as an assistant captain two years ago.
“It's not about face paint and time set aside for team manicures, or whose stilettos cost more and are a quarter-inch higher, or hair stylists and makeup artists,” Pepper wrote. “It's not about the stuff, it's about the substance. It's not about the bling, it's about being there for whatever your captain asks. It is most definitely not about entitlement, but it's about privilege, the privilege of a rare opportunity to do something extraordinarily special – to represent yourself, your family, your fans and your country.”
Maybe U.S. Solheim Cup captain Juli Inkster was right. Maybe the Americans should have been the underdogs.
But European captain Carin Koch was right, too. All the pressure coming here was on the Americans because of how three consecutive losses will appear to validate the criticisms of them.
The American women haven’t been able to beat the South Koreans in their sport’s biggest events, and now they can’t even beat the Europeans?
Inkster may well be remembered for how she’s changing things, though. This Solheim Cup might be transformative because of her. Inkster is old school, and it just might be rubbing off on this team. You see it in the simple things, like the way they shake hands after winning holes. Lewis says this American team is more grown up. Kerr says it’s different.
Winning Sunday isn’t necessarily required to validate those things, but nothing will do so more effectively. Rightly or wrongly, losing is sure to be perceived as validation of the criticisms.
There’s no stronger motivation for an athlete than trying to prove critics and doubters wrong. That ought to make this American team one of the most motivated ever.
Winnning doesn’t mean the criticism of this generation of American women is wrong, and losing doesn’t mean it’s right.
Winning, though, has a powerful way of changing the conversation, changing the focus losing will bring.
If the Americans bring the cup home, they’ll bring a new narrative with them.