September 14, 2007

True Grit Keeps It Close

The U.S. holds a 6½-5½ lead in their race to retain the Solheim Cup. Sunday's singles matches will decide if they become only the second team to win the cup on foreign soil

Laura Davies and Natalie Gulbis take a breather during the Saturday morning matches.

Laura Davies and Natalie Gulbis take a breather during the Saturday morning matches.

HALMSTAD, Sweden -- The question is this: Does Europe have enough bandages left to patch together one more day of gritty play and yank away a Solheim Cup that has been firmly in American hands since the first ball was struck Friday morning? Every time the scoreboard has hemorrhaged the red numbers that indicate a lead by the U.S. team Europe has gutted out halves of matches that seemed all but lost -- two more coming in Saturday's alternate-shot play.

Europe has yet to lead here at Halmstad Golfklubb and the fact that it trails only 6½ to 5½ going into Sunday is testimony to a determined bunch clearly motivated by the fact they are underdogs -- even among the European media -- despite having home-course advantage. The score is a bit misleading, however, since all four better-ball matches were not completed Saturday, a result of a more than two-hour delay in the start of play because the west coast of Sweden was being blasted by wind that gusted to 50 mph.

Of those suspended matches, Europe is 1 up in three and all square in the fourth. Linda Wessberg and Maria Hjorth enjoy their advantage over Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome through 11 holes. Becky Brewerton and Laura Davies have their slim lead over Natalie Gulbis and Nicole Castrale after 10 Holes. And Annika Sorenstam and Suzann Pettersen are ahead of Cristie Kerr and Morgan Pressel at the turn. Iben Tinning and Trish Johnson are even with Juli Inkster and Stacy Prammansudh after 10 holes.

The draw for Sunday's singles matches, schedule to begin at 9 a.m. -- 3 a.m. on the east coast of the United States, but subject to how long it takes to complete the four-ball matches -- was made Saturday, though the order of the matches may change depending on which of the suspended four-ball matches end first. Those matches will resume at 7:35 a.m. here, which presumably will be better than it was at the same time Friday when merely standing up was a challenge in the furious wind, let alone hitting a golf ball.

The idea of having the draw before the four-ball matches are completed seems absurd since the order in which the captains would want to send out their players is determined by whether they are protecting a lead or coming from behind. With all four of the suspended matches up for grabs the score going into singles could range anywhere from the U.S. team leading 10½ to 5½ to trailing 9½ to 6½. How can you possible make an informed decision on the order you want to play your team without knowing the score?

The one thing we do know after two days of golf here is that the play has been of an exceptional quality, especially considering the length of the golf course and the weather conditions the last two days. It rained unbelievable hard on Friday and the wind blew ridiculously hard on Saturday, which was another day of breathtaking momentum shifts. Still, birdies were made and though putts were missed and errant shots hit the mistakes were no more than to be expected under the intense pressure of team play.

Europe was ahead in two matches and all square in two others going to the back nine Saturday morning, quickly fell out of contention in one and fell behind in two others. Faced with the prospect of going into the afternoon session down 7½ to 4½ Europe scratched out two improbable halves -- much like the two it salvaged in Friday's four-ball play -- to maintain the one-point deficit it had coming into Saturday.

Hjorth and Gwladys Nocera were 2 down with four holes to play but the American side of Sherri Steinhauer and Laura Diaz double bogeyed No. 16, the treacherous par-3, allowing Europe to win it with a bogey, and then Steinhauer missed a 3-footer on No. 18 enabling Hjorth to win the hole and halve the match with a par putt of about the same distance. In an unfortunate incident that did not sit well with the American team, Dottie Pepper, thinking she was off the air, remarked on Golf Channel as Steinhauer and Diaz left the 18th green: "Choking freaking dogs," triggering a flurry of postings on the discussion page of the Golf Channel website and a fair amount of ill will toward her in the U.S. Team room. That's the kind of incident that can rally a team.

Certainly, the Americans had let momentum shift. Sophie Gustafson and Pettersen were also 1 down going to No. 18, where Gustafson drove into the left rough. Pettersen, partially blocked by trees, played a hook well right of the green, rode the right-to-left wind and nestled the shot 8 feet from the hole, from where Gustafson completed the birdie to halve the match. The four halves -- all comebacks -- in the span of five matches over two days produced a pair of points without which Europe would be all but eliminated in this competition.

The U.S. team nearly repaid the deed when Kerr and Castrale railed from 5 down with six to play against Sorenstam and Catriona Matthew with four birdies and took the match to the 18th green, but came up one birdie short of earning what would have been a devastating halve for a Europe team that has inflicted four painful draws on the Americans. In the other foursome match Saturday, Pat Hurst and Angela Stanford dispatched Tinning and Bettina Hauert, who was playing her first match for captain Helen Alfredsson, 4 and 2.

Still, for all its heroics and all its resolve, Europe needs to finish those four-ball matches strong Sunday morning. While it is not impossible for the home team to come from behind and win in singles -- the crowds here are huge (33,200 on Saturday) and are truly a 13th player for Europe -- the Americans are expected by nearly everyone to win the majority of the singles points.

If the scores of the suspended matches hold up, Europe would lead 9 to 7 going into singles. If Europe wins two, loses one and halves one the score would be tied at 8. Unless there is a complete collapse by Europe in the four suspended matches the stage should be set for a competitive Sunday showdown.

Both teams have had a plethora of heroes. Matthew and Hjorth have each won two points for Europe while Creamer has captured a pair for the Americans. Sorenstam and Nocera have a point and a half for Europe while six players -- Kerr, Diaz, Steinhauer, Hurst, Inkster and Stanford -- have that many for the Americans. And that, more than anything, probably demonstrates why it would be wise for Europe to take a lead into singles. The U.S. team is very deep.

It could be that the worse break the home team got was having darkness fall while they were playing so well in four-ball Saturday. While the suspension may have interrupted momentum, that massive 13th player -- the large, adoring, mostly Swedish gallery -- will likely get Europe back fired up. This should be a highly entertaining finish.