Saturday 25 February 2017

Cool Sorenstam reveals darker side of Solheim Cup

Karl MacGinty

IT'S not all face paint, high fives and pony tails. Far from it. The Solheim Cup stirs passions as deep and sometimes far darker than any you'd find at Samuel Ryder's biennial bunfight.

Of course, the leading women golfers from Europe and the US are a lot closer today than their forebears.

Half of the 12-strong team which home captain Alison Nicholas fields in this week's Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle played in the Navistar LPGA Classic in Alabama at the weekend and flew into Dublin yesterday on the same charter flight as Rosie Jones and her US team.

Familiarity has helped breed respect for European players and soften America's old arrogance at the Solheim Cup. Yet with so much emotional energy coursing through two highly motivated teams, there's always a chance of thunder in Co Meath this weekend.

Annika Sorenstam, arguably the greatest ever female golfer and certainly one of the toughest competitors to grace the professional fairways, admitted she got goosebumps as we discussed a formidable European team's prospects of winning the Solheim Cup for the first time since 2003 and only the fourth time in all. And she's not playing!

Instead, Sorenstam, who retired from competitive golf in 2008 after a career in which she counted 10 Major titles among 89 victories worldwide and remains the only female ever to shoot 59, performs her first tour of duty as one of Europe's two vice-captains.

One of the most treasured memories of her life in golf came during Europe's victory at Barseback, Sweden in 2003.

"We had an amazing week in my home country," she recalled. "I've had so many highlights in my life as an individual, winning Major championships, shooting 59, playing with the men at Colonial in 2003 -- all of those things were great.

"But when you get together as a team there's something about it. The camaraderie you build, the match play, the atmosphere and the suspense of this event, there's just something special about it."

Yet there's a dark side to desire and Sorenstam has experienced it more than once at the Solheim Cup. For example, she railed with rightful indignation yesterday at one of the grimmest incidents in the 21-year history of the event.

It came during the 2000 matches at Loch Lomond and reduced even this rugged battler to tears. Sorenstam had just chipped in at 13 for a birdie she believed would square Saturday's final fourball against Kelly Robbins and Pat Hearst. Yet Robbins pointed out the putt she faced was longer than the Swede's chip.

Measurements confirmed Sorenstam had played out of turn and US captain Pat Bradley invoked the entitlement under match play rules to have the chip shot replayed. It was one of those rare occasions in golf where 'right' was morally wrong.

Sorenstam, visibly upset, missed at the second attempt, and the American pair went on to win 2&1, sparing their team a whitewash in that session. However, Europe would lift the Solheim Cup in victory the following afternoon, winning by 14.5 points to 11.5.

"Sometimes we all get caught up in the emotions and are so competitive and want it so much, extraordinary things happen," she said. "Yet that chip, I still disagree with it today.

"Most of the time all of us have great sportsmanship and that's one of the things I've always wanted -- to be recognised for sportsmanship throughout my career. So I take those things pretty hard because it matters to me how you react and how you conduct yourself."

Sorenstam checked into the Dunboyne Castle Hotel on Sunday with husband Mike McGee and their two children, Ava (2) and William, who had to show some of his mom's famous fighting qualities to survive after being born three months prematurely in March.

"I keep asking myself how I'm going to react next weekend," she mused. "I've played the Solheim Cup eight times so I know what it's like to get my game face on as a player. I'm just as competitive now in business than I was as a player," added Sorenstam (40) who is heavily committed to her Golf Foundation and Academy in Florida, a flourishing course design business, a successful clothing line and even her own wine label.

"I suppose if you're born a competitor, it never goes away. We'll see how I am on that tee next Friday," she added. "I just hope I can control my emotions and support the players because I'm as fiery as anybody.

"Yet having my family here is a very different situation for me so, in a way, it's going to be fine. If I was here by myself, I'd probably be looking at my golf bag and saying, 'hey, what time am I going to tee it up'."

In fact, Sorenstam brings vast experience to the European cause this week. On a visit to Killeen Castle last year, for example, the Swede walked the Jack Nicklaus signature course and impressed seasoned observers with her forensic, step-by-step analysis of the ideal set-up for the home side.

Few heads will be cooler than Sorenstam's in the heat of battle next weekend.

Irish Independent

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