As Suzann Pettersen stood over a seven-footer for birdie on the final hole of her Solheim Cup singles match, she could be sure of only one thing: If she buried the putt, she would win a full point versus a very game Michelle Wie. But Pettersen, the heart and soul of a scrappy European squad, had a pretty good inkling that much, much more was at stake, as there were only two other matches on the course and she and her teammates were trying to summon one last rally on a furious final day at this transatlantic grudge match. What Pettersen couldn't know was the larger significance of her putt.
The drumbeat up to the 12th playing of the Solheim was composed of incessant questions about the very relevance of the event. With 20 of the world's top 30 players hailing from outside the U.S. or Europe, the Solheim was looking increasingly like a relic from a bygone era. With the U.S. having won three straight Cups, and Pettersen the only Euro in the world's top 20, well, maybe it would make more sense for the Americans to take on a team from Asia, no?
Pettersen's putt trickled across the spongy 18th green at Killeen Castle, outside Dublin, Ireland. The 30-year-old from Norway had inspired all week with her passion, but she still had a little something left to prove, courtesy of a lifetime 0-3-2 singles record in the Solheim Cup. The match with Wie was already an instant classic, as the two had electrified the boisterous galleries by trading bashed tee balls and fierce fist pumps. Pettersen birdied the 16th and 17th holes to keep Wie at bay, Pettersen's Nordic visage growing ever steelier. When this one final birdie disappeared into the cup, she uncorked a celebration so lusty that it called to mind the late Seve Ballesteros, a poster of whom adorned the European team room for added inspiration.
It was a putt that changed everything.
October 2, 2011
Half an hour earlier the U.S. had led in two of the final three matches and was all square in the other, needing only a point and a half to keep the Cup. Pettersen's victory gave the Europeans new life, and, with the partisan crowd still buzzing, Swedish rookie Caroline Hedwall followed on the 18th hole with her own heroics, completing a two-down-with-two-to-go comeback to steal a crucial half point from Ryann O'Toole, the controversial captain's pick who played brilliantly all week but lost her killer instinct at exactly the wrong moment. When Spanish rookie Azahara Munoz rattled in her own birdie on the 17th hole, assuring at least a half point versus Angela Stanford, the Cup had been returned to Europe in the most thrilling fashion imaginable. "It's the first time we looked as if we were dead and buried and we've come back and actually won it," says English legend Laura Davies, who has played in every Solheim and last week became the alltime points leader, with 25. "So this was the most exciting win by far. We've had four wins, but this one tops all the others."
The Americans took an even broader view. "It's devastating to lose, but all of us do realize this was an amazing showcase for both tours and for this event," said Christina Kim, whose Sunday win ran her career singles record to 3--0. "I'm pretty sure Karsten Solheim has been spinning in his grave over all the talk about messing with the tradition of his Cup. Hopefully that will now go away for a good long while."
The Cup was a stage not only for pressure-proof shotmaking and touchy-feely team spirit, but also for the depth and young talent on both teams. European captain Alison Nicholas got such strong play from her four rookies that she rested all of her players for at least one session, ensuring fresh legs for singles. O'Toole, 24, and fellow first-timer Vicky Hurst, 21, were also impressive—and a resurgent Morgan Pressel, 23, led both squads with a 4--0 record—but during team play U.S. captain Rosie Jones chose to lean heavily on her two most accomplished players, Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr, with calamitous results. Kerr, 33, played well in each of the first four sessions despite tendinitis in her right wrist, but the swelling and discomfort became so severe that she couldn't tee it up on Sunday, gifting a crucial full point to the Europeans. Creamer, 25, was brilliant during her first four matches but had nothing left for singles, losing the tone-setting opening match 6 and 5 to Catriona Mathew, a mild-mannered assassin who is now 5--1 in singles.
The Solheim needs some new leading ladies because last week each team almost surely bid adieu to its matriarch. Davies, 47, and Juli Inkster, 51, met in a poignant singles match, and while the golf was less than artful, it was a kick to watch these grande dames grind so hard one last time. The match fittingly ended in a halve; neither proud champion deserved to go out with a loss.
In their absence there's no doubt Pettersen will be the dominant personality for the next few Cups. A hellacious skier in her spare time, Pettersen has long been the best athlete in women's golf. Working with the Vision 54 mental coaches has helped her harness her awesome talent. (Earlier this year Pettersen won the Sybase Match Play Championship and a pair of stroke-play events on closing rounds of 63 and 64.) Nicholas expressed little surprise at her team leader's clutch finish. "That's what champions are made of," Nicholas said.
Speaking of the play of her entire team, she added, "I have no words to describe it. It was an amazing display of golf. The drama and atmosphere here was incredible."
Captain Jones was wowed too. "It was awesome to watch," she said. "It's a great tribute to women's golf."
Yes it was, but having elevated the entire sport doesn't quite take the sting away for the Americans. Said a crestfallen Wie, "Losing sucks."