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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reflections on the Solheim Cup, Part 1

Now that the matches are in the books, I have a few observations about what I saw. You may not agree with me on all of them but, as they say, "time will tell."

1) The matches are fine as they are.
There has been a lot of talk about the Solheim Cup, primarily that it needs to be changed to make it more competitive. If this week has taught us anything, it’s that the competition is alive and well. I suspect the naysayers are people who want to see Lorena Ochoa and the top Asian players get involved. I understand what they’re saying, and the players do too. Cristie Kerr addressed this very thing in a press conference before the matches and suggested that the LPGA do what the PGA did: Rather than change the Ryder Cup, the PGA created the President’s Cup. Kerr suggested a First Lady’s Cup, which got a few laughs from the reporters, but the concept is sound.

The LPGA faces a big challenge now. Not so much from the economy and the new commissioner search, as from the “changing of the guard.” The last wave of big name players who built the game are starting to step down, and the new wave is just getting established. This is the time when it’s hard to get media coverage because you don’t have “names” that people instantly recognize. This lack of name players is also the source of the questions about the health of the cup.

For years the question was, “Where are all the young American players?” Well, they were at the Cup this year. The young European players are lagging just a bit behind, but they’re coming; players like Elosegui, Luna, Nocera, Nordqvist, and Brewerton prove that. We don’t see many of these players except Nordqvist; most of them aren’t playing the LPGA Tour regularly… at least, not yet. By 2013 (at the latest) these teams will be evenly matched.
2) This could have been a different story if Davies and Pettersen hadn’t struggled.
Both sides had players who normally play very well but didn’t last week; most notably for the Americans, Nicole Castrale had an uncharacteristically horrible time. But Nicole, as good as she normally is, wouldn’t be considered one of the USA’s top guns; Europe expected and needed big things from both Laura Davies and Suzann Pettersen. Both are streaky players, capable of amazing things… but they both hit a bad streak at a crucial time. There was talk that this could be Laura’s last Solheim, but I doubt it; a bad streak is hardly the end of a career. But it was still bad luck for the Euros and, had either been on their game, Europe might have pulled off the biggest upset in Solheim history.
3) Michelle Wie is on the verge of breaking through… big time.
I’ve been saying for some time that Michelle Wie’s only real mistake over the past few years was trying to play through injuries. Her return to top form was not just a matter of healing, but of overcoming bad habits developed by compensating for pain. She’s healthy now, and she’s had a chance to hang out with the girls and show her stuff in the premiere event of women’s golf. Her confidence and comfort level has never been better. I think this competition was the turning point for Michelle, and over the next couple of years we’re going to see some incredible play out of her.

Just for the record, Michelle’s breakout play at the Solheim may provide the media boost that women’s golf needs. Past Solheims haven’t really upped the public’s attention to the Tour, despite the great competition… but the past Solheims didn’t have the questions surrounding Michelle Wie to boost ratings. The fact that Michelle answered all her critics with such a clutch performance could have a “Tiger Effect” on the LPGA… and none too soon.

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