ST. LEON-ROT, Germany – You knew the Americans were a different team when they marched on stage for the Solheim Cup’s opening ceremony wearing Chuck Taylor Converse basketball shoes.
No six-inch stilletos this time, no overly fanciful bling, either.
They literally came to work with lunch buckets.
After preaching for nearly two years that she wanted a team with a blue-collar work ethic, U.S. captain Juli Inkster gave each of her players metal lunch buckets as gifts at week’s start that were painted red, white and blue.
Criticized for being more about style than substance, this American bunch delivered the latter in excess in Sunday’s unforgettable 14½ to 13½ comeback victory.
They did so transforming themselves in the image of their captain, and what a makeover it proved to be.
These American women took an exhilarating journey together going from record-breaking losers to record-setting winners.
This was virtually the same group that lost to the Europeans in a Solheim Cup record rout two years ago. Alison Lee was the only addition to this team who wasn’t there for the 18-10 loss at Colorado Golf Club. With Sunday’s victory in Germany, the Americans avoided losing this event for a third consecutive time with the largest comeback in Solheim Cup history. Down 10-6 going into singles, they claimed the cup winning eight of Sunday’s 12 singles matches and halving another. They’re the first team in cup history to come back from being four or more points down going into the final session.
“It's an incredible feeling to have this journey with these 12 ladies,” Inkster said. “They never gave up. They played with class and integrity, and they played with heart and fire in their belly.”
In Inkster-like, old school fashion, the U.S. team overcame more than a staggering deficit and the dispiriting controversy surrounding a phantom concession at the end of fourballs. They overcame the stinging sentiment that American women’s golf is losing its heart with the country’s best players too caught up in the fame and the celebrity of professional golf.
“If this doesn’t show that we American girls have heart, I don’t know what else we can do,” Paula Creamer said.
Somebody should have hooked up heart monitors to the 12 Americans carrying home the cup. It’s a pretty good bet they were all beating in sync with Inkster’s.
“I think each one of us had a little bit of Juli in us this week,” Stacy Lewis said.
Inkster steered this team away from excessive “rah-rah stuff,” as she called it, and from face paint and those elaborate red, white and blue manicures. She got them focused more on pure golf amid the chaos of Solheim Cup week and did her best to get players to stick to routines that helped them week to week in their regular LPGA jobs. She even had them shaking hands after winning holes instead of prancing or high fiving.
And she somehow managed to do it all without forcing her way on them. In fact, she encouraged them to be themselves within the team construct.
In the end, Inkster walked away loving her team and what they gave her.
“I don't think there's anything wrong having style and substance,” Inkster said. “You want to have your own thing. You want to do your own. You want to go out and beat someone's brains out, and then put on some high heels and go out to dinner. That's what they do, and I'm all for that.
“I just wanted us to try to really just focus on the golf this week and on what we were trying to do. I think they did a great job of that.”
Inkster got 12 individuals to bond in a way they never had before in the Solheim Cup, borrowing from former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger’s pod system. She did so after bringing in an expert to put them all through personality tests. Inkster even took that test herself.
“There were like 50 yes-and-no questions,” Brittany Lincicome said. “Things like whether we considered ourselves outgoing, or a leader.”
The team was divided into three pods of four players.
“Everybody bought into it,” Lewis said. “We became closer because of it.”
They even had a “Princess Pod,” they joked in a festive aftermath. Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson good naturedly claimed ownership of the princess moniker.
“I don't think I've ever wanted to win more in my life than for this team and for Juli Inkster,” Kerr said. “It's been a great journey, amazing how she brought us together.”
This American team overcame one setback after another.
At week’s start, Alison Lee fell ill with food poisoning or a stomach virus that knocked her out of the opening foursomes session. Inkster was eager to team her with Michelle Wie, but she had to scramble last minute. The team could have taken that as a sign that the week was doomed to unravel one way or another again.
There was an emotional setback early Sunday morning, with the conclusion of Saturday’s suspended fourballs. That’s when controversy broke out over a phantom concession. That’s when Lee scooped up her ball at the 17th, thinking Suzann Pettersen and Charley Hull conceded her 18-inch par putt to halve the hole and keep the match square. They didn’t and the Americans lost the hole and the match.
Lee was devastated, in tears. The loss meant the difference between entering singles down 10-6 instead of 9-7. It was a large setback to deal with shortly before singles began.
“I think they were ready to go, but I also think that maybe just lit the fire a little bit more,” Inkster said. “I think in their bellies they wanted to just maybe do a little bit more. And that little bit more got us the Solheim.”
Inkster makes fun of her lack of organizational skills. She wore the wrong colors to a team practice. She forgot her credit card when she took the team out for dinner one night. Somehow, though, even that seemed to loosen the team up, giving them permission to be their imperfect selves but believe in their strengths.
Mostly, what Inkster did in Germany is bring out the best in every player.
We saw it in Creamer. Inkster made her a controversial captain’s pick with Creamer struggling this summer and then sent Creamer out in the lead-off match with Morgan Pressel to start the Solheim Cup. They brought home a point. She sent Creamer out in the all-important anchor match Sunday in singles and Creamer delivered again, clinching the victory in a 4-and-3 rout of Sandra Gal.
“I wanted to just go play some good golf, not only for our country and for our team, but for myself, as well,” Creamer said. “I just wanted to go out and prove a lot of things, and I think I did a good job of that.”
We saw something special from Gerina Piller when she buried that clutch 8-foot putt at the 18th hole to beat Caroline Masson 1 up. Piller knew if she missed that putt, the cup was Europe’s. She had to make it to keep the Americans alive. The pressure was immense on a talented player still seeking her first LPGA title.
We saw something special in Angela Stanford, mired in an awful Solheim Cup slump, beating Pettersen, the player the Americans most wanted to beat. Stanford was brilliant in the 2-and-1 victory, erasing all those sour Solheim Cup memories and taking down the player at the heart of the morning controversy.
We saw that in Pressel beating Catriona Matthew, who hadn’t lost her last six Solheim Cup singles matches, since way back in 1998.
We saw it in Kerr magnificently making eight birdies in a nine-hole stretch winning her match.
“For the last six years, we've been waiting to hold that trophy up again,” Pressel said. “Being on those teams, it hurts. Sitting out in the closing ceremonies, watching Team Europe, we've been there. We know how it feels. We certainly didn't want to go into Iowa (in 2017) hearing about it all over again.”
Instead, the Americans will go to Iowa to defend the cup. And who knows, maybe Inkster will be leading them as captain again.