Every year we pore over the results of golf’s biggest team competitions for clues to the perfect way to win. And it seems every year the trends change.
This week’s Solheim Cup at Gleneagles may provide more theories. At one side we have Catriona Matthew, the no-nonsense, zero-hype, apparently unexcitable and undemonstrative Scot captaining Europe.
On the other we have the similarly teak-tough but feisty Julie Inkster, all clenched fists and “way to go!”, with her huddles and her cuddles.
Inkster, with two wins in the last two Solheims, has proved the antithesis of what’s happened in the men’s Ryder Cup, where the USA has got all collaborative. Julie listens to her team, but the buck stops squarely on the driver’s seat of her stars-and-stripes buggy.
And she has the courage of her convictions. Inkster has left out the “heart and soul” of the American team of recent times, Paula Creamer – a much grittier competitor than the pink ribbons persona would suggest – and Cristie Kerr, the US team’s record points winner.
Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel are two experienced wildcards, which shows a divergence from last time at Des Moines, when Inkster selected two rookies, Austin Ernst and Angel Yin, the latter of whom was only 18 then.
Yin is back this time, but picking Lewis and Pressel was probably necessary because the US team has five rookies and three more who have played just once. Kerr and Creamer have no form to speak of this year.
No such fears for Matthew, who stunned everyone by selecting Suzann Pettersen as a wildcard.
Pettersen has only played a handful events since taking a year out to give birth to her first child. At least Kerr and Creamer have actually played some events this year; the Norwegian has played four times in 2019 and made the cut only once.
And remember that Matthew decided that Pettersen would be a wildcard – she had previously agreed to be a vice-captain – on the evidence of playing with her friend in a pairs event as recently as July. Two of Pettersen’s tour events have been SINCE she was named as a wildcard.
Now, the 38-year-old, with eight previous appearances in the Solheim and 19 points from a possible 33, has been – with Matthew in her playing days – very much the heart and soul of recent European teams.
They were the veteran cornerstones of the European teams that won in Ireland and Colorado in 2011 and 2013. When Pettersen was ruled out at the 11th hour two years ago in Des Moines because of a shoulder injury, Matthew stepped up from a vice-captain’s role to play.
The pair have some history. It seems fairly clear now that it was always Catriona’s intention to have Pettersen play if she was able, if she was willing, and if she was hitting the ball halfway straight.
Suzann’s personality – which famously went over the line in Germany four years ago – seems to be that important to Team Europe.
It does remind one very much of Thomas Bjorn’s reasoning for his Ryder Cup wildcard selections for Golf National a year ago.
Bjorn wanted his reliables, his fighting men – Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey. Form be damned – especially in the case of Garcia, who hadn’t hit his hat in 2018 – and even fitness be damned, as Stenson had been struggling with an elbow injury all year.
Many – including this column – thought it a mistake. History shows that it was inspired. Bjorn’s wildcards contributed 10 and a half points, more than the entire USA team – the greatest ever assembled, we were told – combined.
Not only that, Garcia has gone back to largely missing his hat. Yet in that format, with that personality, Sergio was essential for Team Europe that week.
Catriona, quietly as is her custom, been taking notes and speaking with people like Bjorn and Paul McGinley.
Picking Pettersen, despite the captain’s claims, is clearly a risk. But I kind of agree with the opinion of many sage minds that this is the strongest Team Europe have ever been in the Solhiem, and the upside from Pettersen’s presence makes it a risk easily worth taking.
Picking your friends for team golf can backfire – ask Lanny Wadkins, who picked buddy Curtis Strange in the 1995 Ryder Cup and saw him lose all three times h played, or Davis Love, who suffered the same when he picked Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker at Medinah and got one point out of a possible eight.
Or on the European side, ask Darren Clarke.
But trust and faith have a lot to do with winning these things. Catriona trusts Suzann, and it just might work.
This Solheim marks the end of two-decades in which Scotland has secured and hosted golf’s major team events at Gleneagles and the country has re-stated and polished our golfing heritage.
VisitScotland’s dynamic team – supported by the present Holyrood administration and previous ones of different political colours – have done a fantastic job in re-promoting the brand abroad through major sporting events.
It’s been a collective success in the Scottish tradition. I don’t believe anyone involved wants it to stop now.