Golf: Nilsson runs eye over cup options

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The Independent Online
PIA NILSSON was more than an interested spectator at the McDonald's WPGA Championship here yesterday. Most importantly, she was a happy one. Nilsson is the captain of the Solheim Cup team, having stepped up from being Mickey Walker's deputy in the last match two years ago. A fortnight tomorrow she will name her team to take to Muirfield Village to face the Americans on 18-20 September.

On a morning when the gales of the previous day had abated and while the rain was holding off, Nilsson followed the threeball of Laura Davies, Helen Alfredsson and Mhairi McKay. Her judgement proved correct - a welcome omen - as Alfredsson, who won the same championship a year ago, scored a 68 to take the lead at four under par alongside Scotland's Catriona Matthew. Davies was a stroke behind with Marie-Laure de Lorenzi.

"Helen is in top form and Laura is running into form just at the right time," Nilsson said. "I enjoyed watching Laura win in Sweden two weeks ago and she is doing extremely well here."

Both Davies and Alfredsson have been members of each Solheim Cup team since the biennial event began in 1990. They should both be among the seven automatic qualifiers, as should de Lorenzi, while Matthew is in line for one of Nilsson's five wild card selections. Europe's Solheim Cup captain has never had a wider breadth of talent to draw on.

"I think this will be our strongest team ever," Nilsson said. "I have been trying to keep an open mind on the wild cards. There are around 18 players who could be on the team. Even if we had a team of 15 players, we would still have a strong team, and that's a big change from a couple of years ago."

The change in Alfredsson's fortunes on the greens was the result, apparently, of sleeping with her putter. The effect was not immediate, however, and after a three-putt at the first she warned her caddie to stay away from her for a while. And the Swede's boyfriend, Leo Cuellar, the former Mexican World Cup goalkeeper, knew not to open his mouth.

Matthew, who did not drop a shot in her 69, has just split from husband Graeme, but only in their relationship as player and caddie. "It was a joint decision," said the former Curtis Cup player. "But he'll probably say he sacked me."

The Matthews spend most of the year travelling in the States, where Catriona plays full-time on the LPGA Tour. "If there were more events in Europe with comparable purses I'd come back more often," Matthew, 28, said. "But if you want to improve you have to go to the States because that's where all the best players are."

It is an irony that Nilsson appreciates that the weakness of the European Tour could boost their chances at Muirfield Village. "It has been fortunate that so many of our members are part of the LPGA Tour as well and have played a lot out there," she said. "That could help us this year but not in the long term if the European Tour continues as it is."

France's elegant de Lorenzi took the lead before finishing bogey, double bogey, birdie. She suffers from lumbago and that was the reason for the ugly shot that lost a ball at the 17th. No one had a more adventurous round than Davies, however.

She almost holed in one at the eighth but two holes previously the biggest hitter in the women's game could advance the ball only 10 feet from a full swing after her tee shot was buried in the rough. The next only went 30 feet and was still short but she got away with a bogey-six.

Davies has much in common with Colin Montgomerie in that they both think they do not hole enough putts. Davies, however, is determined not to let it play on her mind.

"I've been going well the last few weeks," she said. " In particular holing out from two feet and that's what was missing. It sounds silly but I have been missing one and two-footers and 18 months of missing putts will make you talk negatively about it. I talked myself into thinking I was a bad putter and I'll never do that again. Now I just say I missed a few."