Monday 20 November 2017

Stirring battle to be Queens of the Castle

All that's missing at Killeen Castle is an Irish player in Europe's ranks, says Dermot Gilleece

Hard-nosed Americans will talk about the exercise of watching sport as essentially "a guy thing". One assumes they have never experienced the sight and sound of the golfing sisterhood in full voice, as characterised by the 12th staging of the Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle this weekend.

Terry from New Mexico, here with her friend Debbie from California, seemed to capture the mood when she said: "Usually golf is a very proper sport but with all the whooping and cheering and being able to get up close to the players, this is a whole different environment. We fell in love with the Solheim Cup when we went to Chicago two years ago. It's cool."

The number of men in the large galleries, who also thought it was cool, reflected female generosity in such matters. "I like ladies' golf," said Leonard from Los Angeles, who is here with his daughter on their first Irish visit. Then, after a moment's thought, he added with a broad smile: "In fact, you could say that I just like ladies."

There was much to admire both in looks and technique. Michelle Wie was now a mature woman, very much slimmer than when I saw her as a 14-year-old in the 2004 Curtis Cup at Formby, where she lost a foursomes to Ireland's Claire Coughlan-Ryan. And I remembered Waialai Country Club in Hawaii earlier that year when, like a bewildered teenager ditched by her high-school sweetheart, she was unable to fight back the tears after failing by only a stroke to make the halfway cut in the men's Sony Open. And seeing her wield the belly-putter more than seven years on, you noted that competitive maturity had come at a price.

In perfect golfing weather, she and Cristie Kerr were fighting a losing battle in the bottom fourballs against Suzann Pettersen and her Scandinavian partner, Anna Nordqvist. Thinking back to a trip to Stavanger for the Women's European Amateur Championship in 1985, when Pettersen had just turned four, it hardly seemed credible that a Norwegian would gain Solheim Cup status before an Irish representative.

"Don't worry, Ireland's turn will be coming soon," said Frode Scheie, sports director of the Norwegian Golf Federation, who was in the gallery with two colleagues. "The Maguire girls are awesome. I've seen them many times in junior tournaments and I watched them this week in the Junior Solheim Cup. They're great."

But his voice took on a different tone when he spoke of Norway's pride and joy. "She has shown everybody that it is possible for a Norwegian to become a world-class golfer," he said. "And that's coming from courses with long winters and where the greens would probably never reach 10 on the Stimpmeter (they're 11-plus at Killeen). She's a wonderful role model for all the kids."

Scheie went on: "Coming here, we were hoping for lots of wind and firm greens. I love this course. There's lots of room for spectators." And when I wondered if it would prompt his oil-rich compatriots to spend golfing holidays here, he replied: "I think so. Ireland is certainly getting great publicity out of this. It is being screened on two television channels back home."

It was hard not to feel slightly envious of Scheie and his pride in the world number two. While chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" rolled easily off the tongue, there seemed to be something decidedly contrived about "C'mon Europe", especially if you happened to be Irish with no national involvement in the team. Certainly a lot different from flying the flag at the Ryder Cup and cheering for Pádraig, Rory and Graeme.

Mention of the Ryder Cup, and the remarkable fluctuations it has delivered in pairs combat over the years, was a reminder not to place too much store in an early European advantage. And one thought of the ultimate idiocy of Mark James at Brookline in 1999, believing he could effectively wrap up the trophy before Sunday's singles.

Meanwhile, in rambling around the course, familiar faces seemed to pop up at every turn. Like Ita Butler who, without a home player in action, captained the British and Irish Curtis Cup team to success against the US in Killarney in 1996. Other former Curtis Cup captains, Mary McKenna and Ada O'Sullivan, were there, as was former international, Rhona Brennan. And there were youngsters, lots of youngsters, who availed of the admirable concession of free admission.

Then a meeting with Conor Mallaghan, managing partner of Carton House, revealed a remarkable fringe activity associated with the event. It involved interesting comparisons of scale between the town of Cary, North Carolina and the county of Meath, both of which happen to have a population of about 140,000. Which led to the American town and the Irish county being twinned.

"We have 17 visitors from Cary who are anxious to cement that relationship," said Mallaghan, who filled a very different role as host to the Irish Open at Carton in 2005 and 2006. The visitors' activities involved two golf outings at Carton and a rather special breakfast gathering last Wednesday morning.

Mallaghan explained: "On a visit a group of us made to Cary 18 months ago, we exchanged some ideas and learned about their Research Triangle Park, which was founded 50 years ago making it the oldest science/technology park of its kind. On Wednesday, with an audience of 60 locals, the Cary delegates talked about doing something similar in Co Meath as a benefit of the twinning process."

At around tea-time on Friday evening, fading light was accompanied by a distinct chill in the air as crowds waited around the 18th for the first of the afternoon's fourballs to arrive. Laura Davies and Melissa Reid were one up after the short 16th on the crack American pair of Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel. It looked like an ideal opportunity for Davies to make a winning farewell to pairs combat in the Solheim Cup.

She had not been paired since the opening fourballs at Rich Harvest Farms two years ago and at 47 (48 next month), time was clearly not on her side. The feeling of warmth from the galleries towards her was palpable.

This was the player who, almost single-handedly, had revived women's professional golf in this country when, at the peak of her powers, she made a winning appearance in a modest event called the Ford Golf Challenge at Woodbrook in October 1993. A year later, she won a revived Irish Ladies Open at St Margaret's and returned to retain the title in 1995.

Ominously, the U-S-A chant was carried on the wind up the 18th fairway and suddenly, the scoreboard by the final green changed to show the match was now level. The Americans had won the 17th where Creamer holed from 20 feet. Still the crowd willed Davies to deliver a final piece of magic. Sadly, it was Pressel who seized the moment with a 15-footer for another birdie, this time for the match.

In delightful autumn weather, Davies was again Reid's partner in the top fourball yesterday afternoon. "In the end," European vice-captain, Annika Sorenstam, observed, "you've got to hit it from A to B in as few shots as possible."

On this occasion, execution mercifully managed to match the simplicity of those words. Victory for the European pair pushed Davies to a Solheim record of 24 points, just clear of the celebrated Swede. And you felt justice was done.

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