Has the European Solheim Cup team officially shed its underdog label?
Suzann Pettersen leads the Europeans at Finca Cortesin in Andalucia, Spain where they’re looking to do something they’ve never done before – win a third consecutive Solheim Cup. Captain Pettersen doesn’t just believe they’ll pull it off but says her team is the best it’s ever looked.
“It’s almost scary to say, but I think on paper we have some really solid top eight,” Pettersen said about her team’s automatic qualifiers. “I think it's the first time in the history that I've been a part of the Solheim that we have eight players inside I think it's the top 35 on the world rankings.”
Pettersen was close. To start the matches, eight members of her team are ranked inside the top 40 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
Taking up the mantle as the team favored to win the Solheim Cup represents a shift in strategy by the Europeans who lost eight of the first 11 editions of the event. But they began to ditch their long-worn title of underdogs when they faced the Americans at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio in 2021. It was there that Englishwoman Mel Reid, a veteran for the European side, said they were the strongest team they’d assembled to date. Those were powerful words about a formidable squad that went on to lead every session that week and successfully retain the Cup.
Captain Pettersen is whistling the same tune ahead of this year’s Solheim Cup, which returns to European soil and will be played for the first time in Spain.
But are they right? Is this year’s team the best they’ve ever assembled? Or is it simply a change in strategy by the Europeans to snatch up the favorites’ title and leave the Americans with what had once been the coveted moniker of underdogs with less expectation and pressure?
The Europeans have long positioned themselves as weaker in the matches by pointing to the Rolex Rankings to show the strength of the American team as compared to their own.The same argument could be made again this year, as the Americans could be seen as the favorites with an average world ranking of 25 and with their lowest-ranked player, Cheyenne Knight, hovering around the top 50. The Europeans, on the other hand, have multiple team members ranked outside the top 100 in the world including captain’s pick Caroline Hedwall, who currently sits outside the top 120.
“It’s like a broken record every year that the U.S. is better on paper than Europe, and Europe has somehow come back and won every time. At least the last two,” said U.S. Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis. “I just think Europe is really, really strong. They have got all the momentum in this event right now.”
But anyone who has watched a team competition like the Solheim Cup knows that some players come alive in that format, regardless of world ranking or recent run of form. And given Europe’s success in the Solheim Cup in recent years, it’s become tougher for Pettersen’s squad to tout their underdog status any longer, having won four of the last six meetings.
This year, Team Europe features nine returning members. The team combines for eight worldwide wins in the last year and three players are major champions. They have collectively competed in 31 Solheim Cups, seven of which they’ve won. And perhaps the most impressive – three of their members have gone undefeated in the biennial team competition.
Here’s how the Americans compare.
The U.S. Team is made up of seven returning members. They combine for eight worldwide wins in 2023 and six of their players are major champions. They have competed in a collective 17 Solheim Cups with 10 victories between them.
It will be up to the captains of each side to give their team members what they need to succeed. And there aren’t two more intensely passionate captains for this year’s Solheim Cup than Pettersen and Lewis. Pettersen says she is relying on feel, as she did throughout her playing career, going with the flow when it comes to decision-making and doesn’t want to impose anything on her players.
Lewis on the other hand has traded feelings for facts and has spoken openly about enlisting the help of her longtime sponsor, KPMG, to assist her with statistical analysis of each and every member of her team, not only to make her captain’s picks but to also shape her pairings during the matches.
Both Lewis and Pettersen have won multiple majors, reaching No. 1 and 2 in the world, respectively. They’ve each embarked on careers as playing #LPGAMoms and both claim to have mellowed in their temperament since becoming parents. We’ve heard them each say that they are taking a more fun approach to their captaincy than they did their playing careers, but don’t expect these two to be dancing on the first tee together like captains Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam did in Des Moines, Iowa in 2017.
“It’s one of the things I look forward to the most about this Solheim Cup is going up against her,” Lewis said about facing Pettersen. “I'm so excited. We both have kind of the personalities that hopefully we don't have any rules issues because I don't think either one of us will back down.”
And when the Europeans are being led by one of the strongest players in European Solheim Cup history, it’s easy to see why they would be favored. Pettersen competed in nine Solheim Cups with a record of 18-12-6, which was defined by her mic-drop moment on the 18th green at Gleneagles in 2019 when she clinched the Cup for the Europeans and immediately announced her retirement. That’s the kind of excitement and tenacity Pettersen will bring to the team room.
“The best I can do is just to be very supportive from kind of an arm-length distance and give them my best support,” Pettersen said. “To facilitate the team the best I can is my most important job. I want the players to have the greatest energy, the best surroundings, the best kind of helpers, the support team. That is actually what Solheim is all about from the European side.”
So, is it the Europeans or the Americans who are favored in Spain?
Team Europe is coming in with momentum and has the advantage of playing on home soil, but as usual, the Americans look good on paper. The U.S. side has won three times on foreign soil, most recently in 2015, when they mounted the largest come-from-behind victory in Solheim Cup history to win in Germany.
The Europeans want to be taken seriously, to be seen as a legitimate contender against the Americans, and by taking up the early moniker of favorites they’ve assumed the expectations that come with wearing that title, alongside the pressure of chasing a third consecutive Solheim Cup.
It might not just be a strategy by Pettersen’s team in adopting that title, but the truth. Team Europe is no longer an underdog. Certainly not this year, anyway.