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Why Team USA Lost the Solheim Cup
It was my view from the beginning of the matches that Team USA had an uphill battle to recapture the Solheim Cup, which they had lost to Team Europe in 2011. I didn't want to write that story at the beginning of the matches and appear un-patriotic or pessimistic. Instead, I wrote articles (see Cybergolf's Women's Golf section) that explained the match-play format and some history about the Solheim Cup.
But now is the time to recap the matches and offer my opinion as to why Team USA was outplayed - or as some say "crushed" - on its home soil.
The "home soil" issue cuts both ways. The theory is that when on your home turf you're encouraged by your country's fans and motivated to deliver the prize for them. The crowds cheering "USA! USA!" and dressed in red, white and blue were expected to motivate our team. For some players, it was. Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie, for instance, asked their cheerleaders in the stands to warm up the shouting for their entry to the first tee.
But the flip side is that all the talk about home-field advantage probably created negative pressure on Team USA that compromised their shot-making. And, when the squad lost more matches than expected on Day 1, pressure grew. "Why aren't we winning more?" "Why aren't we making those putts?" Self-doubt is an enemy on the golf course!
You could see that in Stacy Lewis. When she missed a putt, the No. 2-ranked player in the world would look at her putter, her caddie, green and reappraise her line. And, if I could read her mind, I think I would have heard, "How did that happen?" That scenario played out too frequently to build confidence, an important element in match play. Along with confidence comes the motivation to take some risks, which Team Europe took. If a bold tee shot went off the fairway, the Euros' confidently struck comeback shot was usually amazing.
Even though far from home, Team Europe did have good gallery support. In fact, the fan support for Team Europe appeared to have been strategically arranged.
For example, there were hospitality tents on Hole 16, and Team Europe had the best-situated tent right by the 16th green. Team Europe knew where they were going to need to hear "Ole, Ole" for their players approaching the green. With three Spanish players on their squad, this traditional Spanish bull-fight chant worked magic.
And another factor that diminished the home-field advantage for USA is the increasing visibility of LPGA tournaments on American television. Fans of women's golf in the United States now see great international players such as the universally well-liked Azahara Munoz of Spain and the powerful Norwegian, Suzann Pettersen. Sometimes, a gallery cheers great golf by any player without regard for the country they were born in.
Momentum also really matters and Team USA couldn't find it.
Match play in a team format like the Solheim Cup depends heavily on momentum which, when with you, is very empowering. But when it isn't, every defeat or loss is magnified.
I always remember my father's message to me growing up: "A good start is half the race." How true it is in golf! Team USA got off to a shaky start and, in spite of plenty of practice rounds at Colorado Golf Club their approach shots constantly seemed to roll off the fast, heavily undulating (and perhaps too-slick) greens.
After a press interview with Lewis on Friday following the first-day's matches, I had the opportunity to ask her privately whether the momentum in team match play was greater than than what she encounters in her individual stroke-play tournaments. Her answer was a resounding "Yes."
She explained why she was so concerned with the 30-minute delay caused by an official ruling for Team Europe's Pettersen and Carlotta Ciganda in Friday afternoon's match. Lewis said the delay affected the momentum of her teammates playing the three matches behind her. So the delay in her match with partner Thompson compounded the personal pressure she felt along with the responsibility to her team.
Lewis further explained that when players hear chants of "USA! USA!" and applause in the group ahead of them, they know there's been a Team USA victory and that builds momentum. Bit the reverse is true. When the applause is for the opponents - or in this case when a ruling takes too long, every shot looks harder for your teammates and they feel an extra burden to do well. That's negative pressure.
Team Europe had the hot putters and the matches were won and lost on the greens. Yet, Colorado Golf Club, a brilliant design by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, was perhaps not the fairest course for this international match. The sprawling course has abundant rough and extremely undulating greens that were extremely fast the first two days in the 90-degree heat. The putting surfaces were slightly slower on Sunday after being watered Saturday evening, causing some players to misjudge the greens early in the day.
Colorado Golf Club opened in 2007 as the feature of an upscale real estate development. When the PGA Senior Championship was played there several years ago, they requested changes to the course that included adding areas of standard rough bordering the fairways.
For the Solheim Cup, the layout was brought back to its original design, where fairways merge into natural scrub grasses. If a player missed the fairway, she was often either in a bunker or long grass was there was no intermediate rough. The Solheim teams played the course at just over 7,000 yards. Basically, they played from the men's black tees and, to give some perspective, the Slope and rating for male golfers from that distance is 143 and 74.5, respectively. (The distances was mitigated by the thin air at the venue's location at over a mile above sea level.)
That means that even the best expert male golfer would not be expected to par the course. With the way the course was set up for the Solheim Cup, the best professional female players were faced with difficult approaches on all holes, including the tee shots at the par-3s.
Team Europe plays on more links courses, and perhaps practiced approach shots more diligently. Regardless, the bottom line was that Team USA had a hard time holding the greens with their approaches and faced difficult comeback putts that they missed more than made. And Team Europe had better approaches and made more birdies when they had their chances.
Let's hear it for the rookies on Team Europe.
Going into the tournament, Team Europe captain Liselotte Neumann was questioned about having a team with six young players. The European rules for the Solheim Cup allow the captain four picks - players who have not qualified for the team based on points. American captain Meg Mallon only had two picks.
Neumann obviously wanted a young team and she could get it with her captain's picks. With age may come wisdom, but match play is about focus and guts. And that may come easier for rookies. Those are attributes that are required to win the Solheim Cup, especially on this course, and that's what Team Europe had.
The message here is that every young girl learning to play golf should be encouraged that the future of women's golf belongs to her.
More match play is coming for more women Tour players.
The LPGA Tour is hoping that fans want more match-play events. Last month they announced a new tournament, the International Crown, to be played July 22-27, 2014, at the private Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md., a Tom Fazio design.
The International Crown is the first-of-its-kind biennial, global and team match-play competition, featuring eight countries from across the globe and the top-four ranked players from each of those nations. This is important in light of the criticism leveled against the Solheim Cup, which does not include any players from Asia, such as South Korea's Inbee Park and Taiwan's Yani Tseng.
Televising match play has its challenges both for the cameras and announcers. In following the Solheim Cup both on the course and on-air portions, I think there's room for improvement on TV. More split-screens are needed and more footage of previous plays and outcomes would help the viewer understand what's going on and how other competitors played the holes. The LPGA has a year to figure out better coverage on the course and I'm betting on them to do that.
So why did Team USA lose the Solheim Cup? You have read my theories, but perhaps the best quote I heard during the tournament was from Judy Rankin, who did her usual stellar job in the announcer's booth. As she said, "In match play, you can play really well, and still lose." That may be the best explanation for how Team USA lost the Solheim Cup.
Said another way: Team USA just didn't play well enough to win.
Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.