WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Who needs a task force?
When you have Juli Inkster available as captain, it’s a waste of time.
There was no need to bring the best and brightest minds in women’s golf together to analyze what went wrong with the American Solheim Cup effort after an 18-10 record loss in Colorado four years ago, Europe’s first victory on American soil.
There were complaints back then about the direction the American women’s game was heading after back-to-back losses in Ireland and Colorado. There were complaints about how the Solheim Cup was no longer a celebration of everything that’s right about the American women’s game, but, instead, it was a shining example of what’s wrong with it.
Dottie Pepper, once the face of American Solheim Cup brilliance, criticized key U.S. players for treating the biennial international team event with an attitude of “inconvenience and entitlement.” As an assistant captain in Colorado, she said she saw firsthand how certain players failed to see the special honor and privilege integral to the event and seemed to care more about their makeup artists and hair stylists than they ought.
“The U.S. pattern of becoming a star without the commensurate results breeds entitlement and competitive softness,” Golf Digest added in an indictment of some American stars. “American golfers are getting outplayed by golfers who have placed substance over style, and simply want it more.”
These complaints are being dredged up here merely to show how far American women have come under Inkster the last four years.
Thankfully, it’s old news today.
Inkster is the new U.S. Solheim Cup team construct.
She is the master architect of these last two triumphs, the historic come-from-behind victory in Germany two years ago and the impressive rout in Iowa Sunday.
Inkster did what no task force could do. She remade the American team in her image again.
The United States defeated the Europeans 16½ to 11½ at Des Moines Golf and Country Club with a tried and true Inkster formula, a formula no task force could devise. They worked hard, played hard, loved hard and laughed as much as they could along the way.
“Juli said something that really hit home for me,” Cristie Kerr said. “She said it in Germany and she said it here. You play for the person in front of you, you play for the person behind you. It’s not about your individual records. It's for the team. It's amazing how hard you can pull for each other when you have that mentality.”
It isn’t that other captains haven’t said as much.
It’s how Inkster gets her teams to buy into it.
She gave them hard hats with American flags stamped on them as gifts when they arrived in Iowa. She basically built on the blue-collar work-ethic theme she started in Germany, when she gave them all red-, white-and-blue lunch pails.
They bought into so much, they abandoned their stiletto heels and wore old school Chuck Taylor Converse basketball shoes to the opening ceremony again this last week, because those are the shoes Inkster loves.
These players have watched Inkster live her credo as a fierce competitor who won 31 LPGA titles, seven major championships and basically raised two daughters on tour, daughters who are now about the average age of the players on this team.
Inkster treated this team like daughters.
Before each match, she stood on the first tee, awaiting every player’s introduction. She stood there with her arms stretched wide, and she wrapped them in big hugs when they arrived, and then she whispered special messages into the ears of each and every one of them.
“It's very sincere, what she says,” Gerina Piller said. “When she speaks, you listen. There's not one word that she's ever told me that I do not let sink in.
“For her to be there on the tee, to have the belief in you, to tell you, `You got this, I believe in you, you're a great player,’ I’m sure every girl up here would agree that she is a freaking rock star. Whether it’s as a captain, whether it's as a friend, whether it's as a player . . . That’s huge for all of us. We look up to her so much, and we cherish every moment we have with her, all the words she gives us, whether it's a kick in the butt or just a hug.”
Inkster took some pressure off her players, too. She has been here as a player. She knows that players think they must bring something extra to the Solheim Cup, and how that makes them press.
So, Inkster told her players, just like she did in Germany, that they should prepare the same way they do every week out on the LPGA. And they ought to play the same way, too.
Mostly, Inkster said she tried to make this more fun than Solheim Cup weeks usually are. She put them in four-player pods, with players she believed they would enjoy bonding with.
“I just felt the last couple times I played in the Solheim Cup, I wasn't having any fun,” Inkster said. “It was a chore.
“I just felt like everybody was going in different directions. Even though we were a team, were we a team? I don't know. I just felt like when I was younger, it was so much better, so much easier. Everybody bonded, hung out. I just felt like we were losing that.”
Inkster set the lighter tone on that first tee. She took possession of it all week, owned it between matches, waiting there for her teams to get her hug. She sang the songs wafting from the speakers. She danced to Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and Miley Cyrus.
“It’s my job to bring fun back to the Solheim Cup,” Inkster said. “Whether we win or lose, you know what? It doesn't matter. It's the memories you create. It's the bonding you create. It's the atmosphere you create.
“And our job as captains was to create an atmosphere where they feel loved and they feel welcomed. And whether they get a point or not a point, they're a huge part of this team. And it's been an amazing ride.”
Piller relished what Inkster made happen.
“Juli is all about team play,” Piller said. “It’s like Cristie said, you play for the girl in front of you and behind you. I think that has really resonated with us the last two times that we've played in the Solheim Cup.
“I really think our American team is getting what it takes to play for another girl. It's really hard to play for someone else, when all your life you've played for yourself, when it's an individual sport. For a captain to come out here and try to get 12 girls on the same page, it's pretty difficult.”
But Inkster made it look easy.