WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Once upon a time, the Solheim Cup was in trouble. But two remarkable comebacks and one brilliant decision preserved a very special event and created another competition that could achieve similar status.
As you are watching what bodes to be an incredible competition over the next few days before massive galleries at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, thank the golf gods for showing up at just the right time, perhaps not coincidentally in the land of leprechauns.
When the 2011 Solheim Cup got to Killeen Castle near Dublin, Ireland, the Americans had won the biennial event three consecutive times and held an 8-3 advantage overall. With increasingly more top players coming from Asia, there was significant pressure to add non-Europe nations to what would become an International side.
But then fate intervened in a dramatic way. Trailing 12.5 to 11.5 with four singles matches still on the golf course, Europe won 3.5 of the final 4 points for a 15-13 victory. It backed that up with it’s first-ever victory on U.S. soil at Colorado Golf Club in 2013 and then the Yanks staged a rally in Germany in 2015 even more dramatic than the Killeen Castle comeback.
The United States was done, toast, hopelessly behind, trailing by a seemingly insurmountable 13.5 to 9.5 in Germany. But, in perhaps the greatest finish in any team golf competition ever – men’s or women’s – the Americans won the last five matches for a 14.5 to 13.5 victory, the closest match ever in the Solheim Cup.
That wondrous comeback in Germany combined with the Killeen Castle fireworks to form stunning bookends for a perfect idea. After Killeen Castle, it became clear that the Solheim Cup had enough compelling history that it needed to continue to exist exactly as it is – Europe versus the United States. But still there was that Asia question lurking.
So between the 2011 Solheim Cup and the 2015 Solheim Cup, the LPGA created The International Crown, a competition involving eight nations of four players each who qualify off the Rolex Rankings. It debuted on 2014 with the second playing last year.
And in those first two International Crowns, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, China and Taiwan qualified. So did Australia, Spain, Sweden, England and the United States. It is a true international event with its own identity, both in composition of contestants and in format.
When the PGA Tour faced a similar dilemma a couple of decades ago of having top players come from non-Ryder Cup nations, it created the Presidents Cup. That’s a biennial event pitting the United States against an International team.
The problem is that the International team is a made up entity with no real identity, unlike Europe in the Solheim Cup and Ryder Cup, which plays under the European Union blue and gold flag. That lack of an “us” mentality might explain why the International side trails the U.S. in the Presidents Cup 9-1-1.
The International Crown takes advantage of national rivalries that exist in other sports. Japan, China and Korea, especially, love competing against each other. They don’t really want to be on the same team, as they are in the Presidents Cup. That and the unique “Pool” format have quickly made the International Crown a success, the first event won by Spain with the United States capturing the second one.
Yes, Europe won the 2011 Solheim Cup. But in reality, the women’s game won. A bold idea by the LPGA and the Solheim family in 1990 was justified and there was no need to tamper with it, just preserve it. And the side effect of that decision was the creation of the International Crown.
After that remarkable win by Europe in 2011 and the even more unbelievable effort by the United States in 2015, this Solheim Cup becomes the most anticipated ever. Yes, the Yanks will have large, loud crowds on its side. And yes, on paper the Americans appear to have a deeper, more experienced squad.
But, as we found out in Ireland and then again in Germany, the game is not played on paper. It’s played on grass. And numbers on a sheet of paper do not determine the winner as much as heart. Quite frankly, my heart skips a beat or two when I think what could happen this year. We know Solheim surprises will come. Now we wait to see what they are, thankful that fate intervened as it did.