Golf: Nilsson shows Europe the way

Coach who has helped Swedes take on the world attempts to plot victory over United States in Solheim Cup
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The Independent Online
WITH A population of under nine million and snow on the ground for an annoyingly large part of the year, Sweden's rise to success in golf is one of sport's less likely developments. Yet the men's European tour regularly sees a Swede or two in contention each week and in the women's game they positively dominate.

In Annika Sorenstam, who last Sunday won for the fourth time in the United States this season, Lotta Neumann and Helen Alfredsson the once tennis-mad nation has produced three of the best golfers in the world. Add Catrin Nilsmark, Sophie Gustafson and Charlotta Sorenstam, Annika's younger sister, and you have half the European team to face the Americans at Muirfield Village in the Solheim Cup tomorrow.

All this is in no small part due to Pia Nilsson, the vice-captain two years ago, who has taken over from Mickey Walker as Europe's captain. It is a testament to the job Nilsson has done as the head coach of Swedish women's golf for the last nine years, as well as her integrity and honesty, that there were few complaints when four of her five wild cards were compatriots.

Nilsson, 40, moved into coaching after stints as a player on both the American and European circuits, having earlier become one of the first golfers from Sweden to attend an American university. For the last three years, Nilsson has been in charge of the development of all Swedish golf - juni-ors, amateurs, professionals, men and women.

In November she will pass the responsibility over to others but is being wooed by the Swedish Olympic Committee to become a consultant to other sports' head coaches. In July, she became the first sporting administrator to receive the King's Medal of the 8th Dimension, one of the country's highest honours bestowed by King Carl XVI.

Alfredsson remembers when she caddied for Nilsson in a matchplay tournament. "I was 14 or 15 and Pia was playing against a girl who had been up all night. Pia was someone who did all the right things and was in bed by nine the night before. But she lost - and obviously I realised then how I was going to prepare myself.

"We are very different people - Pia was never the one to come with me to the nightclub," added Alfredsson. "She took it upon herself to educate herself in the field of coaching and understanding people. Everyone turns out different, even in Sweden."

One of the keys of the Swedish model is that players receive support from the kindergarten to the major championships. As soon as a golfer turns professional in Britain, he or she is cut off from the amateur unions and left to fend for themselves. But this is no identikit factory line.

"On the men's side, that's the way it was run for some years," Nilsson said. "But it doesn't work. You can't put everyone through the same programme. We help each player find themselves."

Nilsson helped Annika Sorenstam overcome her early shyness and Gustafson as she worked on ensuring that her fear of making a winner's speech (she has a stutter) did not stop her from winning. "Many people say I am a natural leader but that is a surprise to me because early on I was shy," Nilsson said. "But ever since school I have been picked to be a leader and I never really understood why. Then as I started getting into coaching and being head coach I could tell there was something I liked about it.

"My aim is to create the environment for the week. It is important to respect what the players want and what is important to them but then go beyond that to do what is needed to be done. I know there are going to be lots of surprises for me during the week and I have set my mind for that to happen."

Nilsson has tried hard to make sure all the caddies and players' coaches feel part of the team effort and has to analyse the last-day collapse at St Pierre two years ago, when Europe's two-point lead was wiped out by a 10-2 defeat in the singles.

"That is something we have talked a lot about and tried to figure out. What will be very important this time is to regroup after the Saturday play. That Saturday at St Pierre (when Europe took the day's play 6-2) was one of the best day's golf I have ever seen. But playing 36 holes on both Friday and Saturday was new and everything was so hectic and there was so much to do. Everyone needs to think their match is the most important match of the day. Some of the players maybe got five per cent cautious in their play and that swept through the whole team. We will need to regroup and calm down for the singles."

According to Alfredsson, Nilsson will be the right person for the job. "When we get pumped up and go over the top, you need someone to make the rational decision," she said.