Tuesday 12 December 2017

Feast at Castle can prove an inspiration for next generation

The Solheim Cup offers tomorrow's stars a glimpse of a bright future, writes Dermot Gilleece

After a 2006 Ryder Cup staging which was almost hijacked as a vulgar vehicle for corporate Ireland, a very different need can be addressed by the Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle, starting on Friday. "With the amateur game here at a low ebb, it can provide our young girls with badly needed role models," said Mary McKenna, a distinguished member of the European back-room team.

Never mind that this change of emphasis can be attributed to changed economic times, with the main sponsor, AIB, having opted for a "silent" role. The Solheim has proved itself to be a fascinating golfing occasion, with no need to boost its status as a so-called women's version of the Ryder Cup. And we should rejoice in the fact that it's here.

"We want to let the players and the golf do the talking," said Roddy Carr of the host venue. And the indications are that the rival teams from Europe and the US will respond, most eloquently.

Plans for next weekend were shaped to a significant degree by the tournament's last European staging at Halmstad, Sweden, four years ago. One of the points noted by the Killeen contingent on that occasion was the number of children present. As a consequence, under 18s accompanied by an adult will be admitted free next weekend, as has been the case with the Irish Ladies Open.

"This is going to be an absolute feast of golf, which can be a great boost to the game here," said McKenna, who was nine times a Curtis Cup representative and captained the British and Irish side three years ago. "We have some terrific 12 to 14-year-olds and the only players they can look up to are the Maguire twins. And phenomenal as they undoubtedly are, they're still only 16.

"Throughout my own career, there were always players I could look up to. Then, I suppose players of my generation became role-models in our own right. But I don't see that now. So the Solheim Cup can become a great opportunity for Irish ladies golf. Our youngsters will see world-class players such as Michelle Wie who have come up through amateur ranks."

With the ambitious objective of getting an Irish player on the European team, Killeen officials focused considerable attention on Rebecca Codd (nee Coakley), who was taken to Florida for special short-game tuition at the Dave Pelz School. Unfortunately, it became a worthwhile exercise which simply didn't deliver. The fact is that since the event was launched in 1990, we have never had a player capable of approaching such a standard.

So, European skipper, Alison Nicholas, considered it appropriate on this occasion to get a home representative on board at some level. But McKenna insisted she will not be filling an advisory role. "Annika (Sorenstam) and Jo Morley are the vice-captains," she said. "I'm just one of her helpers who will be there to guide Alison around the course in a buggy and to answer questions if she has any.

"People should look to this as a once-in-a-lifetime experience in what promises to be a wonderful atmosphere. And that includes the men, who can learn so much more from watching ladies play than watching the lads. Instead of brute force, they're going to be seeing technical perfection."

The presence of Sorenstam is certain to inspire the European players, especially Suzann Pettersen, the current world No 2 who captured the Irish Ladies Open at

Killeen last month. She and Sorenstam shared foursomes and fourball victories in Europe's last win over the US at Barseback, Sweden, in 2003. Sorenstam was then at the peak of her formidable powers with season's earnings on the LPGA Tour of $2.029m, only marginally less than the current world No 1, Yani Tseng.

"Suzann is playing so well right now that she can become a sort of leader of the team, inspiring the newer players," said Sorenstam. "We really need her skill and experience and after her recent win at Killeen, she's somebody the home fans can connect with."

Obviously the great Swede's skills will be missed, especially since she hasn't played in this country since 1993. Even the more enlightened followers of the game may be surprised to learn this was in modest circumstances at Woodbrook in October of that year, when she was tied fourth behind Laura Davies in the Ford Ladies Golf Challenge.

This will be the second Solheim Cup staging on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, following Muirfield Village in 1998 from which Juli Inkster (US) and Europe's Davies, Sophie Gustavson and Catriona Matthew are survivors. "They're going to finish at Killeen on a hole that's very similar to the 18th at Muirfield Village," said the Bear, referring to a left-to-right dog-leg which has, on this occasion, the backdrop of St Oliver Plunkett's 800-year-old ancestral castle home.

"Killeen is a strong golf course which, I believe, has reached just the right degree of maturity," added Nicklaus. "I feel proud to be part of such a great undertaking."

In 11 stagings, Europe have won only three times, at Dalmahoy in 1992, Loch Lomond in 1996 and Barseback in 2003, when Sweden contributed three players, along with captain, Catrin Nilsmark. Davies, as it happens, is the lone survivor of all three, from either side.

Given that six of the world's current top 10 players are Asian -- Tseng (1), Na Yeon Choi (4), Jiyai Shin (5), Sun Ju Ahn (6), Ai Miyazato (7) and IK Kim (10) -- the gap at the top between Europe and the US is obviously closer than it once was. Yet Americans Cristie Kerr (3), Paula Creamer (8) and Brittany Lincicome (9) are still up there and all three will be in action next weekend. On the other hand, the Ryder Cup has shown us that 18-hole match play can be thrillingly unpredictable.

Finally, it seems hugely ironic that at a time when The K Club, which played host to a record-equalling European Ryder Cup triumph, is battling for survival, a modest Solheim Cup could actually secure the future of Killeen Castle. Irrespective of who wins.

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