Monday 11 December 2017

Pettersen backs Euro 'rookies' to make mark

President McAleese welcomes the teams during the opening ceremony of the Solhiem Cup
President McAleese welcomes the teams during the opening ceremony of the Solhiem Cup

Karl MacGinty , at Killeen Castle

THE pow-wowing has ended and, at last, war paint will be daubed on this morning in Co Meath, as those great rival tribes of world golf, Europe and the US, go whooping and hollering down the fairways and into battle.

Europe's women have been scalped three times by the Americans at the Solheim Cup since their most recent victory in 2003, yet Alison Nicholas and her 12-strong team can end that sorry sequence this weekend in what promises to be a thrilling confrontation.

Sure, the visitors appear stronger on paper. Seven of the US team figure in the top 20 of the current world rankings against just one European, Suzann Pettersen, Norway's global No 2.

And their form in recent years, as they boosted their haul of Solheim Cups to eight from 11, doubtless had some influence on the bookmakers as they rated the Americans as odds-on favourites.

Not to mention that Nicholas will blood five Solheim Cup rookies this weekend, while her opposite number, Rosie Jones, has just three.

However, as Pettersen insists, Europe's newcomers are rookies in name only. "This is the strongest team I've been a part of," said the 30-year-old, already a veteran of five Solheim Cups. "I don't look on them as rookies -- they've all been out on the main tours, have done well and have won."

In fact, all 12 Europeans have won on Tour, while three Americans have yet to cross that critical threshold as professionals -- including Solheim Cup newcomers Vicky Hurst and Ryann O'Toole, plus 2009 debutant Brittany Lang.

This year, European team members have completely out-performed the opposition where it really counts -- on grass. Eight of them have won 12 tournaments on the world's two major circuits in 2011, including four in the US.

The American team oozes class and confidence, but they have struggled to break the Asian stranglehold on the LPGA Tour in recent times, with just two of their number winning only three events this year -- Brittany Lincicome twice and Lewis once, albeit brilliantly at the Kraft Nabisco.

Throw in the likelihood of this weekend's match being played in miserably wet, cold and windy weather, and you have further good reason to fancy the home side's chances, especially given the invaluable experience Nicholas gained as captain of the team which lost at Rich Harvest Farms two years ago.

Nicholas admits she learned several telling lessons in 2009 and has been the epitome of calm, self-assurance this week.

The pressure of the job showed when Jones slipped up while introducing her team at yesterday's opening ceremony and got her Brittanys mixed up, naming Lincicome as Lang.

This tiny slip certainly wasn't on a par with Nick Faldo's Python-esque efforts on the eve of the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla, but it was illustrative, nonetheless. To her credit, incredibly Jones conceded Nicholas sold her a dummy with the European line-up for this morning's opening foursomes.

"I actually thought you would put out Suzann Pettersen in the beginning match," the US captain told her counterpart.

"I was kind of going on what you've done before. That didn't work out, but it's okay. You got me there, strike one," she smiled, before adding hastily: "But I've got heavy hitters in every match, so I'm not really worried about it."

World No 3 Cristie Kerr is likely to strike the first ball this morning when she and Michelle Wie take on Swedish duo Ana Nordqvist and rookie Ana Hjorth in the top match.

Europe are fancied to maintain their traditional advantage in foursomes, while their strength in depth will help address America's long domination of the singles.

"In the past the top (European) players have been under a lot of pressure in singles because they knew their points were so big," explained England's Karen Stupples.

"But this year we are all playing fairly well and, because we have a better chance as a team, there's not going to be that same kind of pressure."

Come Sunday, it does appear that the Solheim Cup, like the Ryder and Walker Cups before it, might be staying on this side of the Atlantic.

Solheim Cup,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 7.0

Irish Independent

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