Solheim to the rescue!
It’s been almost 11 months since the "Miracle at Medinah,” but few will have forgotten the dramatic fashion in which Jose Maria Olazabal’s Europeans retained the Ryder Cup. Trailing 10-6 going into the final day, the cries of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole" grew louder as the afternoon wore on, until Martin Kaymer eventually sealed the Americans' fate when he memorably holed a six-footer to beat Steve Stricker and ensure that the Cup remained in the Europeans' clutches.
It really was box office stuff, and the extraordinary entertainment we were treated to was a testament to the strength and popularity of the event.
But what of the health of the women’s golf equivalent – the Solheim Cup?
Some might have noticed that Europe completed an 18-10 thrashing of their American opponents on Sunday to retain the Cup they won two years ago in Ireland – a record margin of victory incidentally. However, such dominance is not necessarily a reflection of the overall picture, as the Americans have tasted success in eight of the 13 matches since the inaugural event was staged in 1990.
In fact, they cantered to victory in four of the first five Solheim Cups, and the Europeans have had to play catch-up ever since. But catch up they have, and any hoodoo the Americans may have had over them has been well and truly banished.
And therein lies the key to the success and interest in the Solheim Cup – an evenly-matched encounter. Let us not forget, the Ryder Cup hasn’t always captured the imagination of the golfing world.
The iconic image of Royal Birkdale in 1969 when Jack Nicklaus conceded a testing three-foot putt to Tony Jacklin so that the Cup would be shared, was pure theatre. But in the years that followed, the then Great Britain and Ireland team suffered sound beatings. Such one-sidedness drove the showpiece to the brink of extinction, and it was only the inspired decision to strengthen America’s opposition with players from mainland Europe that has seen the biennial event develop such a prolific standing in the sport.
Similarly, the Solheim Cup has improved as a spectacle as the Europeans have gotten stronger. The record-breaking win might even suggest that the balance of power is starting to shift lopsidedly the other way, but closer inspection reveals that nine of the 12 singles matches on Sunday could have gone either way, and that the scoreline may have been harsh on Meg Mallon’s team.
Disappointingly, the resurgence of the Europeans is not a direct reflection on the Ladies European Tour (LET). Like the men’s game, many of the Europeans ply their trade in America, and, as such, only the top five players from the LET (on a points-based system) are automatically selected to represent Europe in the Solheim Cup.
The LET also finds itself in even deeper financial mire than its male counterpart. Although the 24 tournaments on its circuit appear comparable to the 29 on the LPGA Tour, it has been dogged by cancelled events in recent years, and the fact that prize money is typically only a quarter of the amount on offer in America is indicative of its inferiority.
Of course, the LPGA Tour hasn’t been without problems of its own either. The reign of Carolyn Bivens from 2005 to 2009 as Commisioner left the LPGA Tour in a state of crisis, as her attempts to take ownership of events resulted in major clashes with sponsors, and, following the economic downturn in 2009, the number of events had been whittled down to 23. The appointment of Michael Whan as her successor appears to have steadied things, and there is no question that the LPGA remains the powerhouse of women's golf.
However, both Tours find themselves in a significantly more fragile state than they would like to be, and the Solheim Cup might be just the tonic to rejuvenate them. Comparisons to the Ryder Cup will always be tough to avoid, and in the absence of 86 years of history and tradition, it will generally lose the battle in terms of prestige. But for all its recent financial turmoil, the standard of professional women's golf has continued on a steady incline, and the Solheim Cup is a superb means through which to showcase it to a sometimes ignorant golfing public.