GLENEAGLES, Scotland — For captains in international team matches, the eternal conundrum is both simple and complex. The easy bit is talking to their players, pairing those they think will do well together and sending them out in an order that makes some sort of sense on paper. Which is all fine. Until they realize that this is golf, a game that has forever defied logic.
Even allowing for that immutable law, glimpsing inside the minds of those charged with all of the above remains a fascinating business. Not that they are ever willing to give up too much of the strategic thinking that goes into their decision-making. Not during the matches, anyway.
Much depends on the position of the match. The numbers on the board dictate the mood of the skipper in question. Which is why, armed with a 4½-3½ lead at the close of a seemingly endless Day 1 at the 16th Solheim Cup, European captain Catriona Matthew was a wee bit chirpier than her American counterpart, Juli Inkster. Despite losing the 18th hole in each of the last two matches—thus reducing the home side’s anticipated three-point advantage to one—the Scot was happy enough to carry any sort of advantage into Saturday's play over the Jack Nicklaus-designed Centenary Course at Gleneagles.
“Our objective is to try to win every session,” Matthew said. “At the start of today we would have taken a lead. So we're pleased with that. Obviously it wasn't quite what we were looking for. But you have to take the positives, and we are leading. We're a point up. If we're leading at the end of each day, that would be great.”
Not everything went strictly to plan, of course. It soon became clear in the morning foursomes that Europe's Jodi Ewart Shadoff was sadly off form and something of a liability to her partner, Caroline Masson. So poorly did Ewart Shadoff perform, it will come as something of a surprise if she is seen again before the Sunday singles.
Then there was the inevitable failure of a pairing to fire. Matthew thought the Swedish duo of Caroline Hedwall and Anna Nordqvist would “click.” But “clunk” would have been more appropriate. When they shook hands with their conquerors, Ally McDonald and Angel Yin, the Scandinavians had suffered a record-equaling Solheim Cup four-ball defeat, 7 and 5. It was ugly stuff; just one birdie between them.
“That’s one of these things that happens sometimes in match play,” Matthew said. “Everyone has been beaten by a lot, and on the other hand, we’ve all won games by a lot. I wouldn't worry too much about it at this point.”
On the other hand, the slender lead Europe enjoys did not appear as if by magic. There were more successes than failures to look back on for Matthew, who—like Inkster—gave all 12 of her players at least one start in the eight matches played, four foursomes and four four-balls.
After emerging from the morning session with a one-point edge, the European pair of Suzann Petersen and Anne van Dam were the equivalent of five under par in beating Danielle Kang and Lisette Salas, 4 and 2. Salas, who was far from alone in her tardiness (the Ladies European Tour refused to reveal the identities of any others “on the clock”), eventually received a bad time—one more would have meant her disqualification from the hole.
Van Dam, the longest-hitter on the LPGA Tour and an Internet sensation through the grace and purity of her swing, was a revelation in her Solheim debut. The 23-year-old from the Netherlands blasted her drives as much as 40 yards past her three companions. On the final hole of the match, her opponents and partner laid up short of the water fronting the green on the 490-yard par 5. Van Dam was in a greenside bunker in two. With a drive and an iron. Into the wind.
“I just want to say I had the best partner in the world today,” said Pettersen, who was just getting started with the superlatives. “When you have a superstar like this who just bombs it, you've got to be very happy. She is the best golfer I've ever seen on the women's side. And today she was absolutely a rock star. I’m very excited for Anne to get her first point in the Solheim Cup. She's a stud.”
Vying with Van Dam for “stud of the day,” however, were Carlota Ciganda and Bronte Law. Ciganda, a Spaniard and the highest-ranked player on the European side, and England's Law won one match and halved the other. Two down with four to play in the afternoon against Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda, the pair birdied 15, 16 and 17 to take the lead, then lost the last for their second halved match of a day on the course that lasted—for them at least—10 hours and 45 minutes.
The European comeback in that match was in complete contrast to what eventually transpired in the third four-ball. Four-down with six to play against Charley Hull and Azahara Munoz, Nelly Korda and Brittnay Altomare made five birdies to steal the second half of the afternoon.
Still, for all that, Matthew, had much to celebrate, a fact she was clearly determined would be the focus of her post-round interview.
“Carlota and Bronte were 2 down with four to go, so standing on the 15th tee, I'd have taken a half,” Matthew said. “Charley and Azahara are a little disappointed, obviously, but the Americans threw two good birdies at them on the last two holes. It's not like they lost it; the Americans birdied.”
Matthew also offered up a word or two on the glacial pace of play that saw the four-balls moving at a “speed” that saw 18-hole rounds taking almost six hours. It was, she said, the responsibility of the officials to police pace of play. But, like Inkster, she stopped short of excusing the time it took some of her team to hit their shots.
“The back nine this afternoon did get pretty slow,” she said. “I don't really know what caused it. When you're jumping around not following just one game it's difficult to tell. But some of the players on both sides do take quite a while. Every week the players are aware of the pace-of-play policies. No one wants to see slow play. So ideally it would be nice to be faster tomorrow.”
All of which is another conundrum. One no one is apparently close to solving any time soon.