Expect fresh faces, same intensity at Solheim Cup

By Randall MellAugust 1, 2017, 4:00 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It’s funny how team golf works.

While Americans and Europeans have become marginalized in this modern era of the women’s game, the Solheim Cup has never been more relevant.

While Asians dominate the game as a whole, the Solheim Cup has ascended to new prominence as compelling theater.

American Lexi Thompson will be the only top-10 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings in this year’s Solheim Cup, but the nature of the intensifying rivalry between the United States and Europe in the biennial international team event makes that a mere footnote.

The Solheim Cup spotlights the one and only true rivalry today in the women’s game.

If the Solheim Cup wasn’t already a grudge match, it officially became so two years ago, when Norway’s Suzann Pettersen practically ignited an international incident over Europe’s lack of a concession in a fourball match in Germany.

The furor set off a debate pitting the Rules of Golf against sportsmanship, with hard lines drawn over whether Pettersen violated the spirit of the game in her refusal to concede a putt that American Alison Lee thought was conceded.

It left Lee in tears at the end of the match, and Pettersen in tears at the end of the day as the backlash on social media hit with brutish force.

Pettersen ended up throwing herself on the mercy of fandom, issuing a public apology on Instagram and then following up with an apology in a special Golf Channel interview.

“I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle and competition,” Pettersen wrote in her lengthy apology. “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.”

Going to Ireland six years ago, the Solheim Cup’s fire appeared to be going out, with the Americans making the Europeans look overmatched after winning three consecutive events, but that seems like ancient history on the eve of this Ricoh Women’s British Open.

The Euros won with a dramatic late Sunday finish in Ireland in 2011, then punished the Americans in a record rout in Colorado in 2013, but the Euros watched the Americans beat them in a record Sunday comeback in Germany in 2015.

The embers are already stoked for Iowa with the heat promising to rise when the matches are re-engaged in two weeks.

There is more at stake than a major championship at Kingsbarns in St. Andrews this week. There are Solheim Cup roster spots to be won with double points in play. It’s the week’s electric subplot with qualifying concluding when the last putt is holed.

Current U.S. and European team Solheim Cup standings

Clearly, Pettersen will be the top storyline going to Iowa. She insists the debacle in Germany is far behind her.

“I think the media was the one who kind of dragged that incident on and on and on, much more than what we players and whoever was involved did,” Pettersen said. “I feel like everyone that was involved kind of cleared that up fairly quickly in the aftermath and all moved on.”

European captain Annika Sorenstam hopes so with record Solheim Cup galleries expected at Des Moines Golf and Country Club.

“I would say that everybody has moved on,” Sorenstam said. “If there is somebody that wants to move on, that's Suzann. I think we'll all keep this in mind.

“Everybody learns from mistakes or incidents, I think we all learn from those. It just shows you that when you get together, how passionate, how when the adrenaline is pumping and just the competitiveness is so high, it's just amazing how some of these situations happen that we all, looking back at it, go, ‘How can this happen?’ It was not intentional. I think we are ready to move on and focus on the good parts, and just let the golf showcase itself.”

While Pettersen has played 13 times in the United States since that Solheim Cup incident, she knows the controversy will be revisited with Iowa’s approach.

“You do get reminded by media and some random fan here and there, but it was tough at the time,” Pettersen said. “It was a tough loss I think for the European side, that we actually lost the big lead we had going into the finals. I think people kind of forget. It was actually a massive comeback for the Americans to win it.”

Who’s going to help Pettersen make new memories in Des Moines? That’s among the big Solheim Cup questions to be answered at Kingsbarns.

Really, who is going to be left off the American and European rosters is as big a storyline as who is going to make the teams.

Half of the European team that lost in Germany two years ago isn’t certain of making the team Sorenstam will take to Iowa.

Four Americans who helped the United States make that epic comeback at St. Leon Rot may not be on this year’s team, including stalwarts Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.

With the struggling Ladies European Tour dealing with economic woes, Solheim Cup qualifying has been severely handcuffed. Five events have been scrapped from the schedule this year, including the Ladies European Masters, which was scheduled for September.

England’s Georgia Hall leads the LET Solheim Cup points list, but she has played in just four LET events outside the majors this year. She went two months without competing in a tournament before getting into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on a sponsor’s exemption.

England’s Florentyna Parker is second on the LET points list. She won the Mediterranean Ladies Open in April but is in a similar position to Hall.

They are virtual locks to make the European team on points. But as unknown commodities internationally, there’s a question whether Sorenstam will have to hide them in her lineup roster or whether they are poised to offer a jolt of important new help.

“I'm very, very impressed with Georgia,” Sorenstam said. “She is just very technically sound. I just like her attitude.”

Sorenstam also welcomes Parker’s winning momentum with her victory this spring at the Mediterranean Open. The challenge, Sorenstam said, is getting to know these young players quickly.

“We have tried to get some of these LET players to get playing opportunities, whether it's Symetra Tour or whether it's getting invites to LPGA events,” Sorenstam said. “Because some of these players – it’s not a secret – Georgia Hall and Florentyna Parker are leading in the LET points, but if they wouldn't have played on the LPGA, they wouldn't have had any tournament experience coming into August. And that's just the reality of it, but luckily they have. That's why Florentyna has been flying around the world – Korea, Thailand – just trying to get playing opportunities, and Georgia has played in the U.S. a few times.”

For the Euros, there will be four players guaranteed spots from atop the LET points list come Sunday’s conclusion of the Women’s British Open. Hall, Parker, England’s Mel Reid and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda currently hold those spots.

There will also be four players from atop the European Solheim Cup world rankings list. Pettersen, England’s Charley Hull, France’s Karine Icher and England’s Jodi Ewart Shadoff hold those spots.

That will leave Sorenstam with some tough choices as her four captain’s picks.

Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist is a lock as one of those. She may now be Europe’s best player. Because of her withdrawal from the Ladies Scottish Open with illness last week, Nordqvist won’t get the minimum LET starts to qualify on points or world rankings. She has to make it as a captain’s pick.

That leaves Solheim Cup veterans Sandra Gal and Caroline Masson of Germany, Azahara Munoz of Spain and Catriona Matthew of Scotland possibly fighting for the other three captain’s picks.

On the American side, eight players will make it on points. Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis, Gerina Piller, Cristie Kerr, Jessica Korda and Danielle Kang appear secure. Michelle Wie and Brittany Lang hold the final two spots, but even if they don’t make it on points, they’re looking like they could be locks to make it on the U.S. world rankings list.

The two highest ranked Americans not qualified on the points list will make it off the world rankings list.  Brittany Lincicome (No. 42) and Lizette Salas (No. 45) hold those spots. Wie is No. 35 and Lang No. 37.

Though Nelly Korda is 27th on the U.S. points list, American captain Juli Inkster has made no secret she is high on her list of potential captain’s picks.

Solheim Cup veteran Angela Stanford joins Mo Martin, Austin Ernst, Marina Alex and Angel Yin as possible captain’s picks.

“I hate to disappoint anybody, but I'm going to take the players that are playing hot right now,” Inkster said.

The Women’s British Open is the last chance for players to earn points and impress Inkster and Sorenstam.

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New dad Garcia removes shoes, wins match

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:48 am

AUSTIN, Texas – In one of the day’s most explosive matches, Sergio Garcia rolled in an 8-footer for birdie at the 18th hole to defeat Shubhankar Sharma, 1 up, at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

The duo halved just nine holes on Day 1 at Austin Country Club, with Garcia going from 2 up through four holes to 1 down with five holes to play.

But the Spaniard rallied with five birdies over his final eight holes and pushed his record to 20-17-1 in the Match Play. He also gave himself his best chance to advance out of pool play since the format began in 2015.

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The victory continued what has already been a memorable week for Garcia, whose wife, Angela, gave birth to the couple’s first child last Wednesday.

“I already feel like I’m a winner after what happened on Wednesday,” Garcia said. “Obviously, it's something that we're so, so happy and proud of and enjoying it as much as possible.”

The highlight of Garcia’s round on Wednesday came at the 12th hole when he took a drop on a cart path. After considering his options, he removed his shoes and hit his approach from 212 yards to 29 feet for a two-putt birdie to halve the hole.

“I have spikes. So if I don't take my shoes off, I'm going to slip. It's not the kind of shot that you want to slip,” Garcia said. “I had tried it a couple of times on practice swings and I was already slipping a little bit. So I thought I would just take my shoes off, try to get a little bit in front of the hole and it came out great.”

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On a wild Wednesday, DJ, Rory, Phil saved by the pool

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:39 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Call it black Wednesday, but then the one-and-done aspect of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was dulled three years ago with the introduction of round-robin play that assures every player at least three matches in pool play.

Otherwise Wednesday at Austin Country Club would go down as one of the championship’s darkest hours for the top of the dance card. In order, world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson dropped his Day 1 match, 3 and 1, to world No. 56 Bernd Wiesberger; last week’s winner Rory McIlroy lost to PGA Tour rookie Peter Uihlein, 2 and 1, and Phil Mickelson, the winner of the last WGC in Mexico, dropped a 3-and-2 decision to Charles Howell III.

All told, 11 lower-seeded players pulled off “upsets” on Wednesday, although it’s widely held that the Match Play is more prone to these types of underdog performances than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But if it wasn’t March Madness, it was at the least March Mayhem, particularly for those who shuffled around Austin Country Club in a state of mild confusion.

Although there were plenty of matches that went according to plan – with top-seeded players Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Sergio Garcia all winning – it was still a tough day for chalk with three of the top 10 players in the world ranking either losing or halving (world No. 3 Jon Rahm halved his duel with Keegan Bradley) their matches.

At least McIlroy made things interesting after finding himself 5 down through 13 holes. The Northern Irishman played his last six holes in 5 under par to push the match to the 17th hole, but Uihlein closed out the bout with a par.

“If he birdies seven straight on you, hats off to him. It is what it is,” Uihlein said of McIlroy’s late surge. “I felt like if I just kind of kept giving myself a chance, I didn't want to give him any holes. He made me earn it, so hats off to it.”

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Johnson couldn’t say the same thing.

After not trailing in any match on his way to victory at last year’s Match Play, Johnson hit a ball in the water, two out of bounds (on the same hole, no less) and began to fade when he made a double bogey-5 at the 11th hole. Although scoring is always skewed at the Match Play because of conceded putts, Johnson was listed at 9 over through 17 holes before his day came to a merciful end.

“We both didn't have a great day. I think we only made three birdies between us, which is not a lot out here,” Wiesberger said. “Obviously it wasn't his best day. It wasn't the best of my days. I think we both have to do a little bit of work this afternoon.”

Although not as scrappy as Johnson’s round, Mickelson has also seen better days. Lefty made just a single birdie and played 17 holes in even par to lose just his second match in pool play.

But then this event hasn’t exactly been kind to Lefty, who has advanced to the weekend just twice in 13 starts.

“I was fortunate today, obviously, to get past him,” said Howell, who is the second-lowest seeded player to advance out of pool play when he did it in 2017 as the 61st player in the field. “But with this pod play the way it goes now, you never know. You've got to keep playing good. Last WGC we had, he won. So he's never out of it.”

That will be the solace those high-profile players who find themselves on the wrong side of the round-robin ledger now cling to. There is a path back.

Since pool play began, just four players have lost their Day 1 matches and went on to win their group. One of those players is Johnson, who lost to Robert Streb on Wednesday in 2016 but still advanced to the quarterfinals.

But if that helps ease the sting for those who now embrace the Match Play mulligan, it did little to quiet the crowds on what turned out to be a wild Wednesday.

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Match-by-match: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies, Day 1

By Will GrayMarch 22, 2018, 12:22 am

Here is how things played out on Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, as 64 players take on Austin Country Club with hopes of advancing out of pool play:

Group 1: (52) Bernd Wiesberger def. (1) Dustin Johnson, 3 and 1: Down goes the defending champ. Johnson never trailed in any match en route to victory last year, and he won five holes against Wiesberger. But that wasn't enough as the Austrian turned an all-square affair into an upset victory by winning three straight from Nos. 15-17.

Group 1: (32) Kevin Kisner vs. (38) Adam Hadwin, halved: This was a tight one throughout, as neither player held more than a 1-up lead. Kisner held a lead for much of the back nine, but Hadwin birdied the 17th to draw even and the match was halved when they both made par on the final hole.

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas def. (60) Luke List, 2 up: In perhaps the most entertaining match of the morning, Thomas edged List in a rematch of last month's Honda Classic playoff despite List spending much of the round putting with a wedge after bending his putter. Thomas was 3 up with four to play before List pushed the match the distance.

Group 2: (21) Francesco Molinari def. (48) Patton Kizzire, 3 and 1: Molinari turned a tight match into a victory thanks to a few timely errors from Kizzire. Pars on Nos. 14 and 17 were good enough to win the hole for Molinari, with the latter sealing his victory and moving him a step closer to a potential winner-take-all battle with Thomas on Friday.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm vs. (63) Keegan Bradley, halved: Rahm was a runner-up at this event last year, but he got all he could handle from one of the last men in the field. Bradley was 2 up with three holes to play, but bogeys on two of the final three holes opened the door for the Spaniard to escape with a draw.

Group 3: (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat def. (43) Chez Reavie, 3 and 2: Aphibarnrat took the lead in his group with a victory over Reavie during which he never trailed. The globetrotting Thai held a 2-up lead at the turn and closed things out with a birdie on No. 16. Reavie won only two holes all day.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth def. (49) Charl Schwartzel, 2 and 1: The top seed in the group scored an early point in a battle between former Masters champs. Spieth never trailed and took control of the match with three straight wins on Nos. 12-14.

Group 4: (19) Patrick Reed def. (34) Haotong Li, 3 and 2: Reed's much-anticipated match with Spieth is still two days away, but he dispatched of Li in his opener by winning the opening hole and never trailing the rest of the way. Li got to within one of Reed after 10 holes but the American won three of the next five to separate.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama def. (53) Yusaku Miyazato, 2 and 1: This all-Japanese battle went to the group's top seed, as Matsuyama poured in a birdie on the par-3 17th to close out the match. Miyazato got off to a strong start, holding a 2-up lead through six holes, before Matsuyama turned the tables with two birdies over the next three holes.

Group 5: (46) Cameron Smith def. (30) Patrick Cantlay, 2 up: Smith never trailed in the match, but it turned into a closer contest than it appeared when the Aussie held a 3-up lead with four holes to play. Uihlein won the next two holes, but he couldn't get any closer as Smith earned a critical victory as he looks to earn a Masters spot by staying in the top 50 in the world rankings after this week.

Group 6: (57) Peter Uihlein def. (6) Rory McIlroy, 2 and 1: McIlroy won last week at Bay Hill, but he's now playing catch up after a decisive loss to Uihlein. The American held a 5-up lead before McIlroy reeled off five straight birdies to cut the lead to 2-up, but a par from Uihlein on the 17th hole sealed the upset.

Group 6: (18) Brian Harman vs. (44) Jhonattan Vegas, halved: This was a tight match throughout, with Harman clinging to a 1-up lead for most of the back nine. But Vegas rolled in a birdie putt on the final green to salvage half a point, much to the delight of the Austin galleries who were out supporting the former Longhorn.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia def. (62) Shubankhar Sharma, 1 up: Garcia and Sharma took turns leading this match throughout the day, with the Indian holding a 1-up advantage through 13 holes. But Garcia won the next hole to square the match, then earned a full point with a birdie on the 18th hole in his first competitive start since becoming a father last week.

Group 7: (20) Xander Schauffele def. (41) Dylan Frittelli, 1 up: The reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year got the best of the former Longhorn in a tight match that went the distance. Schauffele led for much of the afternoon before Frittelli drew level with wins on Nos. 14 and 15. But Schauffele won the next hole and held on from there.

Group 8: (8) Jason Day def. (56) James Hahn, 4 and 2: Day is a former winner of this event, and he separated from Hahn on the back nine to score an early point. Hahn offered a concession on No. 13 to fall 3 down, then conceded again on No. 16 to close the match.

Group 8: (25) Louis Oosthuizen def. (42) Jason Dufner, 1 up: Oosthuizen appeared poised for an easy point before Dufner rallied with three straight wins on Nos. 14-16 to square the match. But Oosthuizen regained a lead with a par on No. 17 and held on for a hard-fought victory.

Group 9: (58) Ian Poulter def. (9) Tommy Fleetwood, 3 and 2: The match between Englishman went to the veteran, as Poulter took his putter from the 2012 Ryder Cup out of the closet and put it to quick use. Fleetwood won only two holes during the match, none after the eighth hole, and he now faces the prospect of early elimination as the group's top seed.

Group 9: (33) Kevin Chappell def. (26) Daniel Berger, 3 and 2: Chappell and Berger were Presidents Cup teammates in the fall, but the opener went to Chappell. Berger won the 13th hole to draw all square, but Chappell reeled off three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16 in response to close out the match.

Group 10: (10) Paul Casey def. (51) Russell Henley, 1 up: Casey is making his first start since winning at Innisbrook, and he scored an early point after rallying back against Henley. The Englishman didn't lead in the match until the final hole, when Henley's tee shot found the hazard leading to an ill-timed concession.

Group 10: (45) Kyle Stanley def. (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, 1 up: Stanley is making his first match play appearance since 2012, and he got off to a promising start by edging the Englishman. Fitzpatrick was 2 up with five holes to go, but Stanley won three holes the rest of the way including a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a full point.

Group 11: (64) Julian Suri def. (11) Marc Leishman, 3 and 2: Suri was the last man to get into the field following the withdrawal of Joost Luiten, but he's already on the board with an early point. Suri won each of the first two holes and never trailed in the match, closing out Leishman with a birdie on the par-5 16th.

Group 11: (35) Bubba Watson def. (23) Branden Grace, 5 and 3: Watson was absolutely unstoppable in the biggest rout of the day. The two-time Masters champ made seven birdies over his first nine holes, making the turn with a 6-up advantage. Grace never stood a chance.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton def. (55) Alexander Levy, 3 and 2: Hatton won the opening hole with a par and never trailed the rest of the way. Levy's win on the eighth hole proved to be his only victory of the day, as Hatton barely had to break a sweat after building a 3-up lead through five holes.

Group 12: (36) Brendan Steele def. (22) Charley Hoffman, 1 up: Steele never trailed in the match and at one point held a 4-up lead, but coming down the stretch it took everything he had to keep Hoffman at bay. Hoffman won four in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17, but a par on the final hole was enough to give Steele the full point.

Group 13: (61) Kevin Na def. (13) Alex Noren, 4 and 2: The biggest upset from the early matches came here, as Na turned a close contest into a blowout. The two men were all square after 11 holes, but Na won three of the next four and then closed out the match when Noren conceded on the par-5 16th.

Group 13: (29) Tony Finau def. (39) Thomas Pieters, 2 and 1: Two of the longest hitters in the field squared off in this tilt, with Finau notching a full point despite losing two of the first three holes. The American birdied the 15th to take a 2-up lead, then closed out Pieters with a par on the 17th hole.

Group 14: (59) Charles Howell III def. (14) Phil Mickelson, 3 and 2: Mickelson is making his first start since his WGC win in Mexico, but he's now on the ropes after Howell put together a strong back nine that included three birdies in a four-hole stretch from Nos. 10-13 to take control of the match.

Group 14: (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello def. (40) Satoshi Kodaira, 2 and 1: Cabrera-Bello made a run to the semifinals at this event two years ago, and he's off to another good start following a match in which he never trailed and lost only three holes. With the match tied through 11 holes, Cabrera-Bello's birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 proved pivotal.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez vs. (50) Si Woo Kim, halved: The first match of the day ended up in a draw, as the top seed rallied from a deficit to salvage half a point. Kim won three of the first six holes and held a 3-up lead with seven holes to go, but Perez fought back with four birdies over the next six holes to draw even.

Group 15: (24) Gary Woodland vs. (37) Webb Simpson, halved: This group remains entirely up for grabs since nothing was decided on the opening day. Woodland took a 3-up lead at the turn, but Simpson rallied by winning four of the next seven holes, including a birdie on No. 17 that brought him back to all square for the first time since the third hole.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar vs. (54) Zach Johnson, halved: This draw likely felt like a victory for Johnson, who was facing a 4-down deficit with four holes to play before closing with four straight birdies to steal half a point.

Group 16: (47) Yuta Ikeda def. (27) Ross Fisher, 2 and 1: Ikeda now holds the top spot in the group after ousting Fisher, who made the quarterfinals last year. Ikeda squared the match with wins on Nos. 6 and 7 before a pivotal birdie on No. 15 gave him a 2-up lead he would not relinquish.

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Aggressiveness pays off for Spieth vs. Schwartzel

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 9:32 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On Tuesday, Jordan Spieth said he hoped this week’s format would free him up and allow him to play more aggressively.

Although that wasn’t the case early in his Day 1 match against Charl Schwartzel, Spieth was able to get his week off to a solid start with a 2-and-1 victory.

After playing his first nine holes in even par, Spieth moved ahead in the match when Schwartzel made bogey at the par-5 12th hole and the American hit his approach at the par-4 13th hole to 3 feet, a shot he said was “pivotal,” and he added another birdie at the 14th hole to pull away.

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“I had a couple of iffy numbers and some swirly winds. I did not play aggressively,” Spieth said of his opening nine. “Once I got a couple numbers where I could put really nice, solid swings on, zeroed in at the target with no worry about anything else around, I did just that and it led to three or four birdies from the eighth hole on. You have to go at flagsticks to make birdies here.”

The early victory puts Spieth on a collision course with Patrick Reed, who also won his first-day match against HaoTong Li, 3 and 2. Spieth and Reed, who are a combined 7-2-2 when teamed together in the Ryder and Presidents Cup, will play each other in the final day of round-robin play on Friday.