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It has become gospel, within the world of golf, to think of Seve Ballesteros as the most important player in the evolution of the Ryder Cup. It was Ballesteros, after all, who instilled in Europe the swagger that turned an exhibition into a genuine rivalry. He did not see the Ryder Cup as a friendly match, he saw it as a street fight, one where his side was trying to earn respect. His inclusion in the event marked a clear division in its history. There was The Era Before Seve, there was The Era After Seve, and no one would argue the former was better than the latter.
You can make a decent case that Suzann Pettersen — who will captain the European squad this week and also at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in 2024 (note: beginning next year, the Solheim Cup is moving back to even years) — has had a similar effect on the energy of the Solheim Cup.
She is the catalyst who changed everything for Europe.
The Solheim Cup, first held in 1990, wasn’t a total walkover for the United States at its inception. Although the Americans won the first clash handily, 11 ½ to 4 ½ , the Europeans won in decisive fashion two years later when the cup was held on their home turf, 11 ½ to 6 ½. But over the next 20 years, Europe slid into a role of the clear underdog. The United States won 8 of the first 11 contests, including three cups in a row on two separate occasions.
There were signs, however, that the talent gap was closing once Pettersen arrived. Though she was never the best player in the world, she emerged as an intimidating match play stalwart with an unrivaled intensity, much like Ballesteros. In 2003, Pettersen won her first four matches to help Europe win the cup for just the third time in the event’s history. In 2011, she went 3-1 and defeated Michelle Wie for a crucial point in singles on Sunday to help Europe snap a streak of three straight losses. Little by little, and with countless icy stare downs, it was Pettersen who helped shift the momentum away from the American side.
Her intensity backfired in a big way in 2015 when, in a tied fourball match, American Alison Lee scooped an 18-inch putt she thought had been conceded, and Pettersen spoke up and pointed out that no such concession had been made. Europe was awarded the hole, an uproar ensued, and Pettersen was widely criticized. A furious American squad rallied from four points down in the singles competition, the biggest comeback in the history of the Solheim Cup, and Pettersen spent the next week apologizing multiple times for what she called a lapse in judgment.
"I've never felt more gutted and truly sad about what went down Sunday on the 17th at the Solheim Cup,” Pettersen wrote on Instagram the following day.
But in a way, it was classic Pettersen, even in defeat. She was there to win, not to make friends.
Her final appearance as a player, in 2019, offered a healthy dose of redemption. After stepping away from competitive golf for two years to start a family, Pettersen was selected as a captain’s pick by Catriona Matthew and the entire Solheim Cup came down to her singles match against Marina Alex. When Pettersen made a 6-foot birdie putt to win the match and the Cup, she screamed toward the heavens in celebration, then declared it the perfect coda to her career, retiring from competitive golf amidst the celebration. Pettersen finished her Solheim career with a 18-12-6 record, having won four cups.
Europe, once clear underdogs, has now won four of the last six cups, and has a chance this year to win three straight for the first time in their squad’s history. Pettersen believes her team this year is the strongest team Europe has ever fielded, boasting a mixture of experience (eight of the twelve members will be participating in at least their third cup, led by playing vice-captain Anna Nordqvist’s seven previous cups) as well as a pack of talented newcomers (Maja Stark, Linn Grant, Gemma Dryburgh).
“If you look on paper, we have the strongest team that I’ve ever been a part of, and that’s based on great performances over the last few years from all the players,” Pettersen said. “So with good results, there’s also expectations, but these girls are so up for it, so we can’t wait.”
Maguire was the star of the Solheim Cup in 2021, her first time playing the event, going 4-0-1 as the Europeans won 15-13, capturing their second straight trophy. It also marked the second time in the event’s history the Europeans won on American soil.
“Obviously last time went about as well as it possibly could have, but it's a brand-new event this time, it's a brand-new venue, a brand-new team, both on the Europe and the U.S. side,” Maguire said.
What kind of fire will we see from Pettersen as a captain? Even she isn’t quite sure.
“I've thought a lot about this, but obviously my competitive side has kind of changed a little bit after, first of all, becoming a mother and then second stepping away from a competitive life,” Pettersen said. “That feistiness and determination I had inside the ropes is probably still there, but it doesn't come clear as often as it used to.”
As captain, Pettersen says she’s been crunching numbers and poring over spreadsheets to help determine her pairings, but she is not interested in abandoning her instinct entirely.
“Throughout my career, I was somehow into stats, but I was also very much a feel player, and I was a bit of a -- like, I took a lot by instinct,” she said. “But it’s always nice to base your decisions on facts, and then you can kind of take your heart and your gut feel on top of that. So I think it’s a combination of all, but you can’t hide the facts, and I think it’s great to have in your back pocket, but I would say stats are like any rules, there’s exceptions to any rules. This is a game of golf. We’re all human beings. Yeah, you can statistically say these two players should be great together, but they also got to like each other, you got to have the dynamics.”
Pettersen’s counterpart, American captain Stacy Lewis, had her own reputation for feistiness and intensity during her playing career, and she relished playing the role of the underdog. She may need some of those emotions to rub off on her players this week if they’re going to pull off an upset.
“I don’t know what the rankings will show on paper but I mean, I think Europe has to be favored,” Lewis said. “They have won the last two. They have got really great players playing well. We are going overseas. And that’s not to doubt my team. I just think Europe is really, really strong. They have got all the momentum in this event right now. That’s going to be our biggest thing is we are going overseas, and we don’t have the momentum on our side. And so we are going to go try to flip it.”
The United States feels like a team in transition, with its veterans (Lexi Thompson and Danielle Kang) staring down the barrel of perhaps their final Solheim Cup while a big crop of rookies (Lilia Vu, Allisen Corpuz, Rose Zhang, Andrea Lee & Cheyenne Knight) are trying to build a foundation for the future.
“I'm not worried about the chemistry at all,” Lewis said. “These five, they are rookies, but they are so experienced, just as far as the amount of golf they have been able to play. Rose is the only true rookie but she's probably got more experience than a lot of us combined, in big events, that is. So not worried about the rookies at all, to be honest and I love having Lexi, Danielle, those that have been around and played a lot. We are going to rely on them quite a bit just for behind-the-scenes and leading the way there. They have won a couple of these things, and so you know, they really need to lead us in that way.”
As for strategy, Lewis informed her players during the selection process that she wouldn’t be using the “pod system” that’s been popular with recent Solheim Cup captains, one where players are divided up in “pods” based on similarities in their games and personalities. She wants this American squad to lean on each other as a group. Lewis seems more comfortable relying on analytics to guide her decision-making, particularly since the LPGA is partnering with the statistical modeling firm Twenty First Group for the first time. She has access to data no captain has ever had before.
“It’s been my start point for everything,” Lewis said. “It’s not the be all. There’s certainly personalities of people who do or don’t want to play together, maybe it’s a golf ball issue, but analytics are a huge part of what we’re doing and it’s helped justify things to me in my head and it’s helped justify things with the players as well.”
Going away from the Pod System, which has worked for America in the past, is certainly a risk, but it’s one the players seem to support.
“I think it's a new approach. It's a great approach,” said Ally Ewing. “I think, if anything, it's going to bring us together. It doesn't really cluster us or categorize us to certain people that we're around, for the most part, so I think we're going to see even more strength in the team room as an aspect of it. So I think it's going to be nothing but great for us.”
Thompson, who is playing in her sixth Solheim Cup, agreed with Ewing.
“Not that the pod system was a bad thing by any means, but I think Stacy has a great strategy in mind and just all keeping us together and not really breaking us apart,” Thompson said. “We all get along very well and we know each other's games well too, so that always helps. But I definitely believe that Stacy knows what she's doing, so we're excited for the week.”
If the United States is going to win, it could use a strong performance from Thompson, who has fallen to 26th in the Rolex World Rankings, a place she hasn’t been since her rookie season in 2012. In 11 starts on the LPGA this year, she’s missed the cut eight times and has looked lost and disinterested on the course much of this season.
“I'm not focusing on the past,” Thompson said. “I'm here with my team this week and going to represent my best.”
If Thompson needs any inspiration, she might find some in Petterson. In 2019, Pettersen had fallen to 620th in the world. Retirement seemed imminent, and there were plenty of critics who felt she didn’t deserve a spot on Team Europe. No one knew what to expect from her. But when the fate of the entire Solheim Cup rested on her, Pettersen delivered in dramatic fashion.
It was once again proof that, in this event, one putt can change a narrative forever.