There was ample time Sunday to reflect on the historic significance of the inaugural Solheim Cup matches. There was time, in fact, to watch birds, chew pine straw or just gaze at contrails in the sky above the Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando, Fla., so decisive was the American victory in this first-ever three-day competition between the best women professional golfers of the United States and Europe.
"I feel like a pioneer," said Kathy Whitworth, the U.S. team's nonplaying captain.
The origins of the other transatlantic team competitions—the Walker and Ryder cups for men and the Curtis Cup for women—recede in the mists after six decades of competition. Few of the players at Lake Nona could have answered: Who was Walker? Who was Ryder? Who was Curtis? But they all knew Solheim. The goateed inventor of Ping golf clubs was at Lake Nona in the flesh to hand Whitworth the $25,000 Waterford crystal cup. By agreeing to underwrite the biennial competition for 20 years—the next match will be in Europe in 1992—and by spending an estimated $600,000 to make sure the inaugural went smoothly, 79-year-old Karsten Solheim guaranteed that he will be remembered for more than his ugly putters and his legal battles with golf's governing bodies.
Stroke play vanished for the week. Last Friday's first round featured foursome matches, a quaint format in which teammates play alternate shots with one ball. Americans invariably claim that Europeans have an advantage at foursomes because it's a British creation, but that's like saying Yorkshiremen are naturally gifted with cudgel and mace. No one plays foursomes enough to claim an advantage; it's golf's three-legged race.
November 26, 1990
Indeed, in three of Friday's matches the Europeans failed to win a single hole. The lone European success was the bear-and-bumblebee pairing of England's two best players, Laura Davies and Alison Nicholas, who surprised Pat Bradley and Nancy Lopez, 2 and 1. Putting the robust Davies with the tiny Nicholas, besides being cute, epitomized European captain Mickey Walker's strategy of building complementary pairs for Saturday's best-ball matches. "The short hitter should go first and get in position," Walker explained, "and then let the long hitter go for it."
Captain Whitworth rejected this scheme and paired players who said they were "comfortable" with each other and played similar styles. Her two most experienced players, Bradley and Lopez, played as a team. Her two youngest and least-heralded players, Cathy Gerring and Dottie Mochrie, sported matching spiky blonde haircuts and were paired together. Intense Patty Sheehan and hyper Rosie Jones made a third team.
Most notably, Whitworth reunited former Furman University teammates Beth Daniel and Betsy King, LPGA Players of the Year for 1990 and 1989, respectively. "Betsy and I know each other's game so well," Daniel said on Friday, "that I can tell you what club she's hitting without looking in her bag. I know because she's hitting the same thing I'm hitting."
On Saturday the competing strategies clashed most clearly in a best-ball match between Davies-Nicholas and Daniel-King. The Americans won 4 and 3, as Davies's gambles proved too great a burden for the short-hitting Nicholas to bear.
"I think Laura pulled out her driver three times," Daniel said afterward, "and she hit it out of play three times. It's more important to have two balls in play. Alison played very well, but if your partner is in her pocket, all the pressure is on you."
Sweden's sparkling blonde, former U.S. Open winner Liselotte Neumann, prevented a Saturday sweep by single-handedly chewing up the Doublemint Twins, Gerring and Mochrie. "I made everything," Neumann said of her seven-birdie round. "She putted wonderfully well," agreed partner Pam Wright.
As in the other team competitions, the Solheim Cup awards one point for each match won and a half point for ties. Leading 6-2, the Americans needed only 2½ points in Sunday's singles to take the cup. Whitworth led off with Gerring, whose three tournament wins this season nearly doubled her earnings from five previous, slumbering years on the LPGA tour. "Cathy is ready to go," Whitworth said. "She wants to be first out of the box."
Gerring was not only first out, she was first back in, coming from behind to beat Sweden's Helen Alfredsson 4 and 3. Minutes later, Daniel and Lopez extinguished the Europeans on the most remote corner of the undulating, Tom Fazio-designed course. Neumann, Saturday's hottest player, was suddenly very cool. With four bogeys and a pickup already on her card, she stood 6 down to Daniel in the 12th fairway. Needing to hit one stiff to stay alive, Neumann hit one short instead, losing the hole and the match to Daniel's par.
Lopez, a hole ahead, then sank a four-foot birdie putt to close out Nicholas 6 and 4, giving the U.S. its ninth and deciding point. "I'm really thrilled," said Lopez, who was picked by Whitworth for the last spot on the American team. "There was a rumor I wouldn't accept if Kathy chose me, and I don't know how that got started. I had my fingers crossed I'd be asked to play."
Obscured by the quick knockout punch was the best golf of the day, played by Bradley. Although hers was the final match, Bradley was back at the clubhouse before most of her teammates, having birdied seven of 11 holes in an efficient 8 and 7 waxing of England's Trish Johnson. "I got into my own momentum and pace," said Bradley, a 17-year veteran. "She really didn't have much room to breathe."
Victories by Davies and Scottish veteran Dale Reid over Jones and Sheehan gave the European side something to cheer about, and Wright took King the full 18 holes for a tie. (They were the only players to use the 18th green in three days of competition.) But Mochrie beat Europe's best player, Marie-Laure de Lorenzi, 4 and 2.
That, as much as the final tally—U.S. 11½, Europe 4½—testified to the American team's superiority. Asked when the European women might be a challenge to the Americans, Bradley smiled. "It won't be for a while. Not with Lopez, Bradley, Daniel and King still in their prime."
There was no prize money at Lake Nona, but that only partly explained why players from both teams scooped up anything with a Solheim Cup logo on it—towels, visors, golf bags, pins. "We were playing for pride," said Daniel, the only player to win all three of her possible points. "And sometimes that's more important than money."
Still, it was Bradley who best captured the sense that the Solheim Cup pleased no one better than those who fancy themselves golf's archivists—those who would freeze backswings in amber if they could.
"To make history and to start history," she said. "That's an honor."