DUNSANY, Ireland – Nobody offered them blindfolds and cigarettes at the first tee.
Just the same, there was this feeling that Ryann O’Toole and Christina Kim were doomed as a pairing when U.S. captain Rosie Jones sent them off together in fourballs Friday afternoon at the Solheim Cup.
There were so many doubts about their readiness for this giant stage, about their slumping form and shaky confidence.
They looked like liabilities, and you couldn’t help wondering if they were put together because nobody else was especially eager to play with them, because nobody else wanted to be dragged down carrying either of them.
Boy, were we wrong.
O’Toole and Kim scratched out only a half-point in their best-ball match, but it has to rank as one of the most brilliant and gritty half-points in Solheim Cup history.
Two down with three holes to play, O’Toole and Kim carved one determined shot after another through heavy Irish winds, raging doubts and mounting pressure. They did it knowing a faltering American team desperately needed them to salvage something.
O’Toole and Kim birdied the 16th and 17th holes to square the match and gained a halve with solid pars at the last.
“I told you I could do it,” O’Toole said, hugging Jones near the 18th green.
O’Toole rolled in a clutch 20-foot putt at the 17th hole to move the match to all square.
“I think the fighter in me knew it was do or die, and that if we were going to have a chance of winning, I had to make it,” O’Toole said. “I hit the perfect putt, and it just crept into the edge.”
Fighter? That’s what her father, Jamie, saw in the way O’Toole overcame a month of scrutiny over whether his daughter was really up to the Solheim Cup challenge.
“She was born a fighter,” papa O’Toole said amid the celebration at the edge of the 18th green. “Growing up, I thought she would either be a lawyer or a pro athlete because of the fight in her.”
After being named to the American team, O’Toole missed cuts at the CN Canadian Women’s Open, Walmart NW Arkansas Championship and Navistar LPGA Classic. It was ugly. She put up scores of 81, 79, 76 and 75 during the stumble. She confessed a week ago she was “embarrassed” by her sputtering play.
Nobody was quite sure what to expect when O’Toole teed it up Friday.
“I've been talking with Ryann quite a bit, because I know she's been under a lot of pressure, a lot of scrutiny since the pick,” Jones said. “I know that she has a lot of talent. I know that she was lacking a little confidence. We've had some conversations in the past couple of weeks about that, but I was pretty confident that once she got here, and felt this team camaraderie, the support system that comes with Team USA, that she would feel pretty comfortable and really just let it happen. This is the type of stage that she enjoys. She likes to be up front in a big arena.”
Jamie O’Toole said he couldn’t help being concerned how his daughter would deal with the scrutiny.
“Yeah, sure, but we get used to the way this game works, watching her, and how her game will come around,” Jamie said. “I think with her coach on her bag, he’s such a calming influence, so reassuring. I think she just started relaxing, and then swinging the way she needs to swing.”
“Ryann isn’t afraid of the big moment,” Bartman said. “The more people there are, the louder it is, she isn’t afraid of that. It actually helps her focus.
“It’s thinking about what’s ahead, trying to prove something to people as a captain’s pick, that’s harder for her than being in the moment. As a captain’s pick, she put a lot of pressure on herself. She’s young, and that’s a lot to deal with, but when she actually got in the moment, she was OK.”
Kim was just as reassuring as Bartman. The chemistry was undeniable. Kim and O’Toole walked side by side down every fairway, practically in matching strides. Kim would wrap an arm around O’Toole after a shot, or pat her on the back, or rub the back of her neck reassuringly. She got O’Toole to laugh between shots.
“You have to give this one credit,” O’Toole said, nodding toward Kim. “Without her, I wouldn’t have stayed as loose, or as energetic, really getting into every birdie putt. And she was there when I fell.”
Kim was there for more than moral support. Though she’s endured a tough season, with too many missed cuts, she delivered in the clutch Friday.
Two down after 15, Kim rolled in a dramatic 18-foot birdie at the 16th hole to turn momentum back the Americans’ way. This was after she carved a mid-iron through the teeth of a hard wind.
“I told myself that I haven’t done crap today,’” Kim said. “I might as well bring it. We are 2 down, what’s the worst that can happen? So it’s time to go big or go home.”
The duo delivered jumbo-sized help to the American team. O’Toole was asked how she managed to avoid looking like a Solheim Cup rookie.
“I don’t know how a Solheim rookie plays,” O’Toole said. “I just went out to play my game. I don’t remember those three missed cuts. I just know what’s here, how I’m playing, what just happened and what’s to come in front of me.”
What’s to come? On Saturday morning, there’s a date with Morgan Pressel as her foursomes partner in a match against Karen Stupples and Christel Boeljon. Suddenly, there appears to be a lot of promising possibilities for O’Toole. She’s got her confidence back in full.