The controversial phantom concession at the Solheim Cup may be remembered as the defining moment in the reinvigorated international team competition.
When American Alison Lee scooped up her putt at the 17th green at St. Leon-Rot Golf Club in Germany on that Sunday morning in September thinking that it was conceded, she set off a dispute that promises to reverberate through the competition’s history. She also elevated the event’s profile, putting the sporting world’s focus on European star Suzann Pettersen and how golf’s honorable traditions make the game so curiously different.
Ultimately, what did we learn from it all?
Three months after the controversy blew up, nothing has been resolved.
Nobody has definitively found Pettersen guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct. Nobody has absolved her, either. The rigorous debate over whether she violated the “spirit of the game” or was unfairly vilified for correctly upholding the Rules of Golf remains divided. In the end, there seemed to be as many commentators and fans defending her as criticizing her.
That’s the continuing fascination of what happened on that 17th green in Germany. A university ethics professor could probably spend a full semester deciphering the principles of right and wrong conduct exhibited there, and of how etiquette can conflict with adherence to the letter of law. The right and wrong of what happened may be debated through the history of the Solheim Cup.
After initially defending her decision at event’s end, Pettersen said she was overwhelmed by the public backlash against her on social media. She said she cried in the team room that night and later issued a nearly 300-word written apology on her Instagram account. She also went on Golf Channel to explain her apology.
“I've never felt more gutted and truly sad about what went down Sunday on the 17th at the Solheim Cup,” Pettersen wrote. “I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle and competition. 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! I feel like I let my team down and I am sorry.”
While Pettersen apologized for not being more mindful of sportsmanship, she also acknowledged her confusion over what she should have or could have done differently.
“I must say, there is quite gray [areas] playing the rules of the game and being the bigger sportsmanship,” Pettersen said in her Golf Channel interview. “At the end of the day, it means it’s a very fine line.”
Lee and Charley Hull played large roles in the confusion that played out on the 17th green in Germany, but Pettersen walked away the most damaged in the aftermath. Lee was responsible for making sure the putt was conceded. The fact that playing partner Brittany Lincicome shouted to Lee, warning her not to pick up her ball was telling. If Lincicome was uncertain, Lee should have been. Hull’s actions complicated matters. She and the two European caddies standing beside her began marching away from Lee as if they were conceding the putt. There was confusion in that. So much so that even the referee was misdirected, calling out that the hole was halved when it was not.
Pettersen’s position on the green also contributed to the confusion. She was at the very far end of the green, behind Lee. After Lee scooped up her 18-inch putt saying she thought she heard the Europeans concede, Pettersen moved into the center of the maelstrom. Pettersen did so telling the referee that the putt was not conceded after the referee called out that the hole was halved. The Americans were penalized and lost the hole and a vital fourball match, but they used the controversy to fuel a record comeback victory in singles.
“How Suzann can justify that I will never, ever know,” Hall of Famer Laura Davies said on Sky Sports 4, analyzing the action as it unfolded. “I am disgusted. I know she is angry and justifying everything, but she has let herself down and she has certainly let her team down.”
American captain Juli Inkster called Pettersen’s move “B.S.” and Hall of Famer Judy Rankin also took Pettersen to task on the Golf Channel telecast.
Pettersen had a legion of defenders, though.
“I thought she did the right thing,” Marilynn Smith, one of the LPGA’s 13 founders, told the New York Times. “I don’t understand why people criticized her.”
Smith’s question is one of many that promises to linger through Solheim Cup history.