Golf: Europe bank on team spirit

Solheim Cup: Confidence high in Nilsson's team but defending Americans will take some beating
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EUROPE'S WOMEN have arrived at Muirfield Village, a shrine to the legend that is Jack Nicklaus, in much the same fashion as the men did 11 years ago: ready to win for the first time on American soil. Not even Nicklaus' captaincy could prevent a team containing Ballesteros, Faldo, Woosnam, Lyle, Langer and Olazabal becoming the first from this side of the Atlantic winning the Ryder Cup in an away match.

Pia Nilsson's Swedish-dominated Solheim Cup team are far from assured of matching that achievement but for the first time in three stagings of the event in the States, Europe have a realistic chance of victory.

This is only the fifth playing of the Solheim Cup but it has quickly gained a competitive edge after its inaugural outing at Lake Nona in 1990. It was a one-sided encounter. Five of the eight members of the American team that won by seven clear points - Nancy Lopez, Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan and Pat Bradley - were giants of the women's game. An upset home victory was achieved at Dalmahoy two years later but as the match has expanded to a full Ryder Cup format - 12-a-side with fourballs and foursomes on the first two days - America has held sway.

But the American stars have drifted away - only King and Dottie Pepper have played in all four matches, while Europe have five who have done similarly. That includes Trish Johnson, who practised for the first time this week after a painkilling injection to ease her stiff neck. The session went well enough for Nilsson to stick to her original plan of pairing Johnson with Laura Davies in the top foursomes match against Pepper and Julie Inkster.

In Annika Sorenstam and Davies, the visitors have the best player and the most dominant personality in the women's game. More importantly, given Europe's poor showing in past Sunday singles, the strength in depth is higher than ever before.

Nilsson, a professional leader, as opposed to America's Judy Rankin, who is from the ex-player school of captaincy, has tried to concentrate the minds of her players over the three days of practice, with little games involving chipping and putting as well as non-golfing activities.

Though an all-Swedish pairing speaking in their native tongue has managed to upset some of the Americans in the past, Swedish has been banned in the team room and around non-Swedes. "It was very important for me that all the players felt that, though I am from Sweden, that all 12 of them are important," Nilsson said.

Pepper, the fiery soul of the American team, made it plain the Europeans should not treat the home side lightly. "If there is a weak link in this team it is me," Pepper said. "I haven't won for two years but I'm the only one who hasn't."

Rankin, who led the United States to a dramatic comeback on the last day at St Pierre in 1996, agreed. "This team is not as physically strong as that one, but it is very solid. I see this as a very smart team and I'm mighty glad because everyone who has been successful at Muirfield Village knew how to think their way round a golf course. I have players like that."

An on-course commentator for the TV network who annually broadcast the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village, Rankin knows Nicklaus's creation well. "I hope I've absorbed some information over the years," she said. "I've certainly seen some great players play this course and I've tried to pass along a few things."

SOLHEIM CUP (US v Europe, at Dublin, Ohio): Pairings for today's opening foursomes (Times BST):

1pm D Pepper and J Inkster (US) v L Davies and T Johansson

1.10pm M Mallon and B Burton v H Alfredsson and A Nicholas

1.20pm K Robbins and P Hurst v L Hackney and L Neumann

1.30pm D Andrews and T Green v A Sorenstam and C Matthew.