ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Annika Sorenstam used to carry a two-shot lead to the first tee before a tournament even began.
Her aura was that formidable.
At her best, she built advantages beyond her Hall of Fame ball-striking, winning at a rate that made her the most intimidating presence of her generation.
She won big, and she won a lot, 72 times in her LPGA career.
Winning is what she did best, better than anyone in the history of the game not named Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82).
At her best, Sorenstam was the favorite every time she showed up an event.
It won’t be like that for her as the European Solheim Cup captain in Iowa next week.
If anything, Sorenstam will look as if her team is two down before the first ball is struck next week at Des Moines Golf and Country Club.
As Europe’s leader, Sorenstam remains a formidable figure, an icon, but she won’t have the firepower she possessed as a player. On paper, her Euro team appears supremely overmatched.
On paper, this looks like U.S. captain Juli Inkster’s team ought to steamroll Europe.
The 12 women on the American roster have combined to win 58 LPGA titles.
They feature seven major championship winners.
The Euros have combined to win 20 LPGA titles, just 28 LET titles, and they have a mere two major champions on their roster.
The Americans average world ranking is 29.5.
Europe’s average world ranking is almost twice that at 52.6.
The American’s don’t have a single player ranked outside the top 60 in the world. The Euros had three outside the top 100 before Mel Reid sneaked inside that number this week.
There’s also a giant intangible favoring the Americans. They’ll have the home crowd advantage in a larger way than ever before. Record crowds are expected in Des Moines.
It’s probably kind calling kind calling the Euros underdogs,
The rawest are like puppies being sent out into rush-hour traffic.
On paper, this looks like it could be epically ugly.
Most oddsmakers had the Americans as 4/6 favorites going to Germany two years ago. They’re 8/13 favorites this year.
“We probably should be the favorites,” Inkster said. “We won last time. We are playing on a home course, but the bottom line, the team still has to go out there and play. You don’t win on paper. I think my team knows that. We are going to bring our hard helmets and get to work.”
And that’s the thing.
If we’ve learned anything about these biennial international team competitions, whether it’s the Solheim Cup or the Ryder Cup, it’s that the paper these matchups are handicapped on probably ought to be toilet paper.
Match play really has proven to be a great equalizer.
Sorenstam knows how this works.
Four years ago, Sorenstam was an assistant captain when fellow Swede Liselotte Neumann engineered the most head-scratching upset in the history of these matches as Europe’s captain.
Neumann took her “overmatched” squad on to U.S. soil as staggering underdogs. Some bookmakers had the Americans as overwhelming favorites at 4/11 odds.
Neumann’s Euros didn’t just upset the Americans in Colorado. They humiliated them, winning in an 18-10 rout, the largest winning margin in the history of the matches.
Before that Europe had never won these matches on American soil, and nobody saw it coming with that young Euro squad.
Asked about taking four first-time Solheim Cup rookies to Iowa next week, Sorenstam noted the curious nature of Neumann’s team.
“There were six Solheim Cup rookies on that team that won for the first time on American soil,” Sorenstam said. “You look at rookies vs. veterans, but I’m not sure if there’s any rhyme or reason to these. There are different levels of rookies.”
With the Ladies European Tour in a woeful state this year, with so many events canceled, qualifying for the team was limited. That left a lot of questions about Georgia Hall and Florentyna Parker making the team at the top of the points list.
Obviously, Sorenstam sees a lot of potential in this next generation of Euro players. She added Sagstrom and Pedersen as two of her four captain’s picks, both LPGA rookies. By doing so, Sorenstam left 47-year-old veteran Catriona Matthew off the team. Matthew is a European Solheim cup dynamo with a 15-10-8 career record. Matthew was 3-1 in Germany just two years ago. Sorenstam also left veterans Azahara Munoz and Sandra Gal off the team in favor of these rookies.
Hall has proven herself the last month, contending at the Ricoh Women’s British Open last week and at the Ladies Scottish and Thornberry LPGA Classic before that. Sorenstam showed a lot of faith hand picking Sagstrom and Pedersen.
“They are both very strong,” Sorenstam said. “I like the personalities for the team. They are both very driven. I think their games suits the golf course that we are going to play, and they all want to play with these two.”
In team competitions, being an underdog isn’t a bad thing.