PARKER, Colo. – American women used to own this week.
The Solheim Cup was their last stronghold in the game, the last stage they still dominated.
Even with Asians seizing so many of the game’s biggest prizes, winning LPGA titles and majors in bunches, the Americans still had the Solheim Cup.
They still had this week to revel in one of golf’s brightest spotlights, and then Europe took that, too.
With a dramatic late rally in Ireland two years ago, the Euros broke the United States’ iron-fisted hold on the biennial matches, ending the Americans’ run of three straight Solheim Cup victories in routs.
“We’ve been waiting two years to get our cup back,” Paula Creamer said.
Two years may have passed since the United States lost in Ireland, but the sour taste is still with the eight Americans returning from that team.
“It’s a big deal,” U.S. captain Meg Mallon said. “I know a lot of those players didn’t like that feeling at all. Some of them had never lost a Solheim Cup, so I know I have a highly motivated team.”
This is an important week for the Americans. They still dominate this one special corner of the game, the Solheim Cup on their home turf. They’ve never lost the biennial competition at home. They’re 6-0 on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. A victory is vital if only to keep this last coveted stronghold intact.
“We’ve never lost on home soil, and we’re all very aware of that,” Creamer said. “It’s a little bit of added pressure, but I still think we can use our crowds to be great motivators for us, and I think we’ll all feed off of that.”
This Solheim Cup, coming on the heels of Stacy Lewis’ victory at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, offers the Americans a chance to keep building momentum going to the year’s final major, the Evian Masters, next month. Lewis ended the longest American drought in the history of women’s major championships, a winless run of 10 straight majors. She led a strong American showing at St. Andrews with three U.S. players finishing among the top six, five among the top 10.
“Incredibly strong,” Mallon said. “We’re playing on all cylinders right now, and I’m really excited about it.”
The Americans are 2/5 favorites to win back the cup, according to Ladbrokes.
Even with their victory in Ireland, the Euros have something to prove. They will be trying to break through and win for the first time on American soil with a roster that barely resembles the one that won two years ago. There are six Solheim Cup rookies in the Euro lineup. Outside the inaugural event, there have never been more Solheim Cup rookies on a European roster (’02 also had six rookies).
“I feel like this is really the team that is going to do it for us,” European captain Liselotte Neumann said.
The Euros have been pushed off the game’s largest stages even more forcefully by Asia’s ascendance than the Americans. Sixteen major championships have passed since a European last won a major. No Euro has won a major since Scotland’s Catriona Matthew won the Women’s British Open at the end of ‘09.
With Laura Davies no longer in the mix, Matthew, 43, and Norway’s Suzann Pettersen, 32, are back as Europe’s team leaders. For the first time in the history of the Solheim Cup, the matches will be played without Davies, who didn’t qualify and wasn’t a captain’s pick. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall and Spain’s Azahara Munoz are all back from the team that won in Ireland. France’s Karine Icher is back on the team 11 years after her first and only other Solheim Cup appearance.
The six Europeans making their first Solheim Cup appearances include England’s Charley Hull, who at 17 will be the youngest competitor in Solheim Cup history. Spain’s Beatriz Recari and Carlota Ciganda, Germany’s Caroline Masson, England’s Jodi Ewart-Shadoff and Italy’s Giulia Sergas are the other first timers.
Recari has won three LPGA titles -- two this year -- and she’s well known by American audiences. The other five Euro first-timers add an element of the unknown. Ciganda, Masson, Shadoff and Sergas are all playing the LPGA this year, but they’ve never won on that tour. Hull has made just nine starts in her rookie season and yet is fourth on the LET Order of Merit with five second-place finishes.
On paper, there doesn’t look like a massive difference between the teams, with the Euros having more players from the top 10 of Rolex world rankings than the Americans (2/1) and more top-30 players (8/7). The USA has cumulatively won 51 LPGA and LET titles. The Euros have won 49 such titles.
The Americans will bring more big hitters, but the Euros have some power, too.
The most important difference may lie in the Euros having six Solheim Cup rookies to the USA’s four.
Those Euro Solheim Cup rookies aren’t exactly bringing a lot of positive momentum to Colorado Golf Club. All six of them missed the cut at the Women’s British Open. Three of the USA’s four Solheim Cup rookies made the cut there.
“With six rookies on the European side, it's not like you are going to be able to hide anybody,” said Golf Channel’s Curt Byrum, who will team with Judy Rankin as analysts in the Solheim Cup TV coverage. “Half the team is rookies on the European side. In those conditions, with that much pressure on U.S. soil, I think that gives the U.S. a bit of an edge.
“I think the veterans on the two teams are fairly evenly matched. I think it could come down to how the rookies play.”
Overall, the Euros disappointed at St. Andrews, with eight players from the 12-woman Euro Solheim Cup roster missing the cut at the Women’s British Open.
Just two of the 12 American team members missed the cut there.
The Euros team sport an average age of 27.6, but the Americans are even younger. At an average age of 26.3, this is the youngest American team in Solheim Cup history.
The Americans bring Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Angela Stanford, Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lang and Michelle Wie back as returning veterans. The four first-timers are Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, Lizette Salas and Gerina Piller.
As much as the Solheim Cup rosters can be dissected, there is such an unknown dynamic with 10 of the 24 players making their first appearance. Mallon says you never really know how players will react the first time to Solheim Cup pressure until they’re under it.
“The Solheim Cup is a different beast,” Mallon said back when she was beginning to mull over captain’s picks. “In the nine Solheim Cups I’ve been a part of, it’s actually ruined some players’ careers because they were not ready for that stage.”
Mallon said other players instantly thrive. The Euros will likely need their large contingent of rookies to surprise to keep the Americans from taking back the cup.