The United States heads to the Solheim Cup looking for a Threepeat of a Threepeat and Juli Inkster has a chance to make it a triple-triple by becoming the first captain with three victories.
Inkster, who is appearing in her 12th of the 16 Solheim Cups as player or captain, takes a talented but young team into a road game against Europe in Captain Catriona Matthew’s homeland – Scotland.
Only Mickey Walker, who captained the first four European teams, has been at the helm more than Inkster. Only Judy Rankin, who was victorious for the USA in 1996 and ’98, has matched Inkster by winning twice as captain. And only the USA, which won in 1994-96-98 and 2005-07-09 has had three consecutive victories.
Triumphs in Germany in 2015 and Des Moines in 2017 under Inkster give the United States a 10-5 edge in the Solheim Cup, but since Europe’s crucial comeback victory at Killeen Castle in Ireland in 2011 when it scored 3½ of the final 4 points in singles, the competitions have been evenly split.
The stage is set for an intense week at Gleneagles in Perthshire with a lot on the line, beginning with national pride. This is the week when players who are friends the rest of the year trade hugs for highly focused stares and polite handshakes.
While the United States has the momentum of back-to-back victories, Europe comes into Gleneagles with the more experienced team and the advantage of the home crowd, although many Americans will make the trip to cheer on the red, white and blue.
Only Stacy Lewis, Lizette Salas and Lexi Thompson played on each of the last two U.S. teams while Carlota Ciganda, Charley Hull, Caroline Masson and Anna Nordqvist competed in 2015 and 2017 for Europe. Inkster’s squad has 18 combined Solheim Cup appearances with a 29-27-11 record. Matthew’s team has a 59-48-15 record in a combined 32 Cups.
Europe is strongest in the team formats, going 23-17-5 in Foursomes compared to 11-13-2 for the Americans and 26-17-3 in Four-balls to 10-10-3 for the Yanks. But the USA holds the edge in singles with a stellar 8-4-6 record to 10-14-7 for Europe.
Inkster and Matthew are polar opposite personalities with Juli much more vocal and outwardly emotional while Matthew is the Ice Lady of Scotland, cool and reserved. But what they have in common is a burning desire to win.
In an LPGA career spanning six U.S. Presidents, Inkster has won 31 times, including seven majors along with three consecutive victories in the U.S. Women’s Amateur. That and the fact she’s lost only one of her nine Solheim Cup singles matches shows how well Juli understands match play.
Matthew has four wins in 25 years on the LPGA and another five on the Ladies European Tour. Her major championship at the 2009 AIG Women’s British Open came only 11 weeks after giving birth and just one week after she and her husband Graeme escaped a hotel fire. Matthew and Inkster are on a very short list with Nancy Lopez of women who won majors after becoming a mom.
Like Inkster, Matthew has competed in the Solheim Cup nine times with an 18-11-8 record including 6-2-1 in singles. She was 3-1-0 in Des Moines when she was supposed to be an assistant captain but was a last-minute replacement for injured Suzann Pettersen.
Now that the agonizing task of Captain’s Picks is out of the way, Inkster and Matthew can focus on pairings. Friday morning’s opening Foursomes lineup will be revealed Thursday on Golf Channel. Inkster, a huge sports fan who understands team competition very well, has been studying the stats and weighing personalities.
“I guess you’ve got to ride the Korda sisters,” Inkster said Friday at a Legends Tour event in Massachusetts where two of her assistant captains – Pat Hurst and Wendy Ward – were also competing. “Jessica and Nelly certainly have played together a lot.”
Then she pointed out a surprising fact uncovered in her research. “You know who leads my team in birdies this year?” she asked. “Brittany Altomare. She’s No. 12 on Tour with 277 birdies. That makes her pretty valuable in Four-ball play.”
On the European side, the player everyone will want to be paired with in Four-ball is Ciganda. She leads the LPGA this year with 17 eagles and is No. 3 in birdies with 308. She’s paired successfully with fellow Spaniard Azahara Munoz in the past.
Lizette Salas and Angle Yin worked well together in Four-ball in Des Moines and we might see that grouping again. But that is the only pairing from 2017 that has a chance of being repeated for the Americans as Inkster brings five Solheim Cup rookies and three more who have only competed once.
Ciganda and Caroline Masson played together in Foursomes in Des Moines as did Anna Nordqvist and Georgia Hall while Hall and Charley Hull teamed up in Four-ball, a format where Nordqvist and Jodi Ewart Shadoff were also a team. Those are pairings Matthew might revisit.
“I think the team is looking fantastic,” Matthew says. “We have a lot of experienced players. “All in all, we have a fantastic 12 players and we can't wait.”
That’s the special magic of the Solheim Cup – after two years of waiting we have to wait no longer. It all starts on Friday. An, as it has 15 times before, the Solheim Cup will no doubt live up to the anticipation and very likely exceed it. Let’s bring it on.