If, that is, you have The Golf Channel. And have an interest in high-stakes, give-it-all-for-the-team competition. I’m talking about the Solheim Cup, the biennial USA vs. Europe women’s golf competition, which starts Friday.
I’ve covered the event four times when it was in the United States: in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2005. It began in 1990, as the women’s version of the Ryder Cup, sponsored by the Solheim family of the Ping golfing equipment empire. It’s got all the drama but none of the hype of the Ryder Cup, and it was always one of the most fun things I ever got the chance to write about.
In 1994, the Solheim Cup was at the Greenbrier, in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., one of those ultra-swanky golf resorts. There was no chance I was going to stay there, so instead I got a “recommended” hotel from someone in media relations with the LPGA tour. As far as I can remember, that’s what happened.
But I have to say, that’s one of the weird truths about “progress” in life – you sometimes have a hard time remembering what you did before you had a certain technology – in this case, the Internet. How did we used to find hotels before the Internet? Got a recommendation, right? Made phone calls? Of course, you didn’t really know what you were getting most of the time.
Anyway, I think that’s how I ended up with this place – someone recommended it, and I called for a reservation, and they gave me directions from the Greenbrier. They did say, “Now, we just want you to know, we’re pretty far from the golf course.”
OK, no problem. I’m a Midwesterner, and our “far” is always way further than an Easterner’s “far.” I figured half-hour, something like that. So …
I arrived, two and a half hours after leaving the course that night, in what appeared to be a ghost town from the 1950s, way out in the hills of West Virginia, after approximately 17 turns, several of them wrong. I felt much like Lucy and the gang in the “I Love Lucy” when they stay at the backwoods motel where the beds shake their way across the floor whenever the train goes past.
I went to the “front desk” and figured, “This is a joke, nobody is really at this hotel, it’s been abandoned,” … yet there was a person there, although to this day I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t a ghost. Whoever or whatever it was, I was directed to my room at the end of this long cabin-like structure. Upon seeing it, I was *this close* to driving back to the Greenbrier and sleeping in my car.
But, it was like 2 in the morning, and too much of a chore for even me, a nocturnal animal, to consider trying to navigate the way back. I decided to make peace with the fact that I might wake up in the middle of real-life “Psycho,” because this is sometimes just the way life goes. Maybe it was my fate.
The room might have been cleaned as recently as 10 or 15 years before I’d been born. It had a heater – this was October, by the way – but not one that actually produced heat. Just as well, I wasn’t going to take off my jacket, or any of my clothes or my shoes. I wanted to be ready to run if awakened suddenly.
But guess what? I slept, and nothing happened. Not usually an early riser – to say the least – I was up not too long after dawn after a refreshing four-five hours and then set about finding my way back to civilization.
(Aside: And this is not even the “worst” hotel I’ve ever stayed at. A place I dubbed “Mouseland” – not for Mickey and Minnie _ near Wichita is also not the worst. I’ve tried to block the worst out of my mind, but it’s hiding there in a corner. Suffice to say, my skin still starts crawling when I even try to remember that place. Being a sport writer is just more glamorous than you can possibly imagine.)
However, it was all more than worth it. The competition in the Solheim Cup was riveting, as was the way that it transformed some of the more quiet _ read: dull _ people on the LPGA tour. A “Sports Illustrated” writer – I’m kicking myself, but can’t quite remember which one – once wrote something to this effect: That the Solheim Cup took players with the personalities of toll-booth collectors and turned them into “Wheel of Fortune” contestants.
And for the people who already had a lot of personality, they suddenly became as big as the giant-cartoon balloons _ Underdog, Bullwinkle, Charlie Brown, etc. _ at parades. One in particular: Dottie Pepper, who dyed her hair red for the competition and earned unending European disdain for what they considered her over-the-top antics, including a fist pump once at a missed Euro putt.
Dottie didn’t care if they didn’t like her; to the contrary, this was heaven to her. She’d grown up without much of an option for team sports, and so golf was one of her few athletic options. I always figured if she’d been a generation younger, she would have been one of those soccer players who was always looking to mix it up. The Solheim Cup gave her the chance to bring out all that team-spirit stuff inside her.
In that 1994 Solheim Cup, my prime player to follow was Donna Andrews, who was a native of Lynchburg, Va., and so of the most interest to my newspaper’s readers in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Of course, I was captivated by Dottie, too. What writer wouldn’t be?
And on the Euro side, here was as close as they got to Dottie, at least in terms of fiery, fun temperament: Helen Alfredsson. Dottie and Helen were, by far, my favorite golfers to watch back then because they were not the robots that so many other people seemed to be in pro golf.
Speaking of which, there was another golfer there who – at times in her career – might have been called robotic. She was just 24 at the time and had never won an LPGA tournament. But when I asked the European media relations person to direct me toward whom she thought was really the best young player on the team, she didn’t hesitate to take me over and introduce me to this golfer.
I interviewed her, but it didn’t take all that long. Maybe 10 minutes. She was quiet, somewhat nervous, businesslike … and she had this look like she wasn’t sure why I – or any other reporter – would really want to talk to her.
That was my introduction to Annika Sorenstam.
I don’t think enough can be said about how hard Sorenstam tried to become more accessible to media folks and regular fans as her fame grew, how seriously she took her responsibility to be a spokeswoman for the LPGA tour. It didn’t come easily to such a strong introvert, but she did it. I always admired Sorenstam for that, along with how much she elevated women’s golf.
The Americans won in 1994, and at all the other Solheim Cups that I attended. In Europe, they have not always done as well. They lost overseas in 1992, 2000 and 2003. The U.S. has not lost on American soil.
There have been hilarious moments, or at least hilarious to outsiders like us in the media. In 1998, the Euros got so ticked off at Pepper that they actually made up a kind of “Dottie in effigy” punching bag in their locker room. There was the huge soap-opera moment in 2000 when Sorenstam chipped in from about 25 feet to apparently win a hole, but it was discovered soon after that she had not been “away” and so had played out of turn.
In the spirit of good sportspersonship, the Americans technically could have let this go, but they didn’t. It brought Sorenstam to tears, and she and her partner eventually lost that fourball match. But she got the last laugh, as the Euros won the Cup.
Probably one of the best times in Sorenstam’s golfing life then came in 2003, when she and her Euro teammates trounced the Americans 17 1/2 to 10 1/2 in Malmo, Sweden. She got to win the cup in her native land, on a course filled with adoring country men and women, in the same year she’d achieved worldwide recognition for competing in a PGA tour event.
The most recent Solheim Cup was 2007, back in Sweden, but the Americans dominated it, 16-12. There is always the question of whether the Solheim format should be changed to allow for the fact that so many of the LPGA’s top players come from Asia now, specifically South Korea. (And we don’t want to forget the Australians, either).
My thought is that women’s golf simply doesn’t get that many spotlights. Men’s golf is big enough that it gets attention for both its USA-Europe competition (the Ryder Cup) and the USA vs. rest of the world (the Presidents Cup). But even with Tiger involved, the latter competition doesn’t get tons of mainstream media coverage.
So you can figure, especially in today’s media world and with the current economic situation, that the odds of the women getting legitimate coverage and attention for two team events are not good. As it is, the Solheim is not going to get the coverage it once did. Not working at a newspaper anymore, I’m not going to be there, and I know other reporters who might have gone in the past won’t make it this year, either.
However, there doesn’t seem to be any sentiment by the Solheim family or by U.S. or European women’s golfers to want to change the Solheim Cup format. I’ve always tended to think that was a mistake; I’d like to see a three-way team competition between North America (which means Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa would be involved), Europe, and Asia/Australia. Then you bring in all the best golfers, plus you give the event a chance to be held in places where it could get a tremendous crowd/media reception (yes, I’m thinking South Korea).
It may never happen, though, and I don’t want to suggest the Solheim Cup isn’t great as it is. I just anticipate there will be little attention paid to it by American media and even American sports fans, who have so much else to follow. I think bringing in Mexico, Korea and Australia would be a better step for women’s golf.
Nonetheless, I’ll be watching avidly this weekend to see USA vs. Europe. Michelle Wie is part of the American team for the first time, and for all the grief she’s gotten about what she hasn’t done, let’s remember she’s still just 19 years old and could very well have a great career.
The U.S. team also has the most fun golfer in the entire world: the ebullient Christina Kim. It has the player we sometimes jokingly call Dottie Pepper Jr. because of her intensity: Morgan Pressel. And it has the apparently ageless Juli Inkster, who at 49 probably has golf clubs that are older than most of her U.S. teammates.
On the Euro side, for the first time in forever -OK, 1992 – Sorenstam won’t be competing. However, the Euros have their own “ageless” duo in Alfredsson and Laura Davies – the latter being the only woman who’s played in every Solheim Cup. The Euros also have a young Swedish sensation in Anna Nordqvist, a 22-year-old who won a major earlier this summer, the McDonald’s LPGA Championship.
The event is on pretty much all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday on The Golf Channel. Trust me, whatever time you can spare, this is worth it.