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Pepper's Solheim captaincy hopes boosted

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Dottie Pepper’s time might come after all.

When Rosie Jones was named the U.S. Solheim Cup captain for last year’s event, it was the strongest sign yet that Pepper was being skipped over as a possible captain, that the controversy that erupted over Pepper’s stinging criticism of the American team five years ago would never be forgiven.

With Meg Mallon being named the American captain Thursday for the 2013 matches, it was more evidence that Pepper wasn’t just being pushed to the back of the line, but possibly out of the line, forever.

But something changed Thursday with Mallon being named the American skipper.

Mallon changed things.

Really, for the first time since Pepper blasted the American team as “choking freaking dogs” when she believed she was off the air as a TV analyst in Sweden in 2007, there’s a ray of hope for Pepper. Mallon offered it.

When I asked Mallon after Thursday’s announcement if she would consider Pepper as an assistant captain, Mallon cracked a door that appeared to be slammed shut.

“I don’t know who my assistant captains will be yet,” Mallon said. “But I do believe Dottie Pepper should be a captain someday. I also strongly believe that anyone who is captain should be an assistant captain first. Whether it’s me who names her, or another captain after me, Dottie was the face of the U.S. Solheim Cup team in the ‘90s. She deserves to be captain.”

Mallon believes it’s time to welcome Pepper back into the Solheim Cup fold.

“I’m all about forgiveness, and I think both sides need to step forward to kind of have that healing happen, and it couldn’t happen soon enough for me,” Mallon said. “I’ve spent my whole career with Dottie, and I know her whole heart bleeds red, white and blue. She is so passionate about the Solheim Cup that sometimes that passion comes out in ways that have obviously hurt other people. But I still believe you can get over those hurts, and that she will be a captain someday.”

Pepper, 46, was visibly moved when told about Mallon’s comment.

“I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s terribly complimentary, and that means a lot to me,” Pepper told GolfChannel.com.

Back when Jones was named captain, I asked Pepper if she wanted to be captain.

“I could in no way fit it into my schedule,” Pepper said of her NBC and Golf Channel analyst duties. “But because of the issue in Sweden, I don’t believe I will ever be in the conversation.”

With Mallon’s sentiment, Pepper is at least in the conversation again.

“Dottie’s a very busy person, too, so I’m not sure that it is something that would appeal to her right now, but that would be a conversation I would have to have with Dottie, or the next captain would have to have with her,” Mallon said of possible assistant captaincy.

Of course, there is more than Pepper’s Swedish gaffe working against her. As an announcer, Pepper pulls no punches. Her candid assessments have upset some players over the years.

Still, Pepper’s LPGA and Solheim Cup records eminently qualify her for captaincy. She won 17 LPGA titles, two majors. She played in six Solheim Cups, compiling an impressive 13-5-2 record, 5-1 in singles. Her 14 points are third most for an American in Solheim Cup history. Only Juli Inkster (18½) and Mallon (16) scored more.

As good as her record is, Pepper’s fiery and patriotic reputation as a Solheim Cupper trumps it. She dyed her hair red before the ’94 matches. Her leadership in so many victories made her appear to be a lock as a future captain before the debacle in Sweden. While Americans loved Pepper at the Solheim Cup, Europeans despised her. Back in ’98, at Muirfield Village, Europe’s Annika Sorenstam was so annoyed at Pepper’s spirited demeanor, she put Pepper’s photo on a punching bag. The European team took turns socking Pepper’s face.

Still, there was begrudging respect.

Mickey Walker, who captained the first four European Solheim Cup teams, admired Pepper’s spirit.

“Dottie Pepper, without a doubt, has been the greatest Solheim Cup competitor,” Walker once said. “I remember at The Greenbrier [in ’94], looking at her face. I had never seen such intensity. She said there that for two years she ate, slept and dreamed about being on the team and getting the cup back.”

Whether Pepper can start dreaming those dreams again remains to be seen, but Mallon changed the dynamic. She introduced the possibility. Mallon isn’t just next year’s U.S. captain. She’ll join the U.S. Solheim Cup committee that selects future captains after the 2013 matches conclude.