Europe bank on Irish fervour to help avoid barren Solheim decade


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The Independent Online

The Solheim Cup would not be a golf match pitting Europe against the United States without a bit of cattiness. And so the claws were shown, if not employed, on the eve of this Ryder Cup equivalent.

"We all looked the same at least," said the Swede Suzann Pettersen, reflecting on Wednesday night's gala dinner. "The Americans turned up in 12 different looks. We looked like a team."

It was ever thus, say those seasoned observers of biennial dust-ups. Except that does not apply when it comes to the Solheim. When the 12th edition tees off at Killeen Castle this morning, the record books show 8-3 to the Americans, with the last three matches going in their favour. Little wonder there are whispers emanating from the Starred and Striped side of the pond that this not just a battle for a trophy but also for relevance.

Annika Sorenstam, aka "the greatest ever" who is in Co Meath as Alison Nicholas's vice-captain, senses the urgency for a European victory. "We don't want to go 10 years without a European win otherwise people would then start thinking about whether we should change the format and everything," said Sorenstam.

In truth, the thought is already out there, with "people" suggesting that an international team, boasting the might of the Asians, would revive the contest.

Pettersen, at No 2, is Europe's only top 20 representative, while the US have seven including Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie. But then follows the bottom order which raises European hope.

"It's the strongest team in depth we've ever had," said Laura Davies, the only player on either team who will have appeared in all 12 Solheims. "That's the difference. Yeah, we've had teams with five or six really good players. This time, they're all world class."

America's Juli Inkster agrees. "Yes, this is the deepest team they've ever had – their rookies are playing very well," said the 51-year-old, making her ninth appearance. "I don't know how we're being made favourites. We're playing like underdogs."

Inkster may not have been referring to her own moderate form, but also that of Christina Kim, four missed cuts in this year's majors, and others. The fact captain Rosie Jones awarded a wildcard to Ryann O'Toole, a 24-year-old rookie ranked 102nd, should highlight the lack of options.

Nicholas has no such problems. Indeed, with the likes of Melissa Reid, the great hope of England, and Caroline Hedwall, a Swede with a deadly putting touch, any optimism is understandable. In Sorenstam's view the team has a giddying mix as well.

"Rookies like Mel Reid, who is one of the most exciting prospects in golf, will be complemented and guided by sage old heads like Laura and Catriona Matthew," she said.

Two other factors may also work in Europe's favour – the weather and the crowd. The forecast is so wild there are fears the three-day event, which has the same format as the Ryder Cup, could run into a Monday, à la Celtic Manor. Nobody wants that, but Nicholas does want it to blow. "It'll make it interesting," she said with a smirk. Concurred Jones: "It's a definite advantage for the Europeans."

And then there are will be the Irish support. They have billed this as the biggest golf event to be hosted on the golf-mad island this year and the Irish public have never needed much encouragement to respond to hyperbole. "We're going to have thousands of people singing and cheering and building up an atmosphere," said Davies.