WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Good ideas are born of hard work and careful research. Great ideas have an added ingredient – vision. The minds behind great ideas see farther than tomorrow, imagining what something can be a year down the road, a decade away. Genius is judged by time and more than a quarter century after the first Solheim Cup in 1990, it’s clear it was a great idea.
Karsten Solheim was an extraordinary visionary who saw not just what was but dreamed what could be. The Norwegian immigrant was working as an engineer at General Electric when he took up golf at the age of 42 and brought science to the game, coming up with the idea of perimeter weighting, first with the putter then with irons, eventually establishing the revolutionary equipment company PING.
A staunch supporter of women’s golf and the LPGA, Solheim saw the rise in popularity of the Ryder Cup after Europe ended America’s long domination with victories in 1985 and ’87 and a halve in 1989. In 1990, he put his name and his money behind the women’s version of the Ryder Cup. In five brief months, the Solheim Cup was conceived, planned and staged for the first time.
“Pulling the event together as quickly and successfully as we did was a feat in itself,” says John Solheim, who took over PING from his father in 1995. Karsten died in 2000 at the age of 88 but his wife, Louise, saw the Solheim Cup evolve into the premier event it is today. This Solheim Cup at Des Moines Golf and Country Club is the first since Mrs. Solheim passed away earlier this year at the age of 99.
“Everyone was committed to putting on a first-class event and we delivered as promised,” says John Solheim. “We learned a lot that first year in a short amount of time. It was nice having two years to get ready for the next one. As a family, we all pulled together to make it happen and were proud to see our name on the trophy.”
Think where golf was in 1990 when the first Solheim Cup was played at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., on Nov. 16-18. Golf Channel was five years away from launching. Annika Sorenstam was two years away from turning pro. Michelle Wie was one year old and the LPGA had yet to grow into the global tour it is today.
“They originally proposed that we sponsor two Solheim Cups, but we had a strong belief it would become a meaningful event so my mom, Louise, excitedly suggested 10 events, or 20 years,” says John Solheim. “At the time, PING was co-sponsoring four LPGA tournaments, so everyone knew our company was invested in supporting women’s golf. We never imagined it would grow into one of the premier competitions in all of golf.”
The first match was the foursomes contest of Laura Davies and Alison Nicholas for Europe taking on Pat Bradley and Nancy Lopez. “I wasn't playing and I was nervous,” says Mickey Walker, the captain of the first four European Solheim Cup teams. “I can't imagine what Laura and Ali felt like.” In a shocker, Europe won that match 2 and 1. However, Europe lost 11 of the next 12 matches and the United States captured the first Solheim Cup 11.5 to 4.5.
“In our heart of hearts, I don't think that any of us thought we could win the match, so the four and a half points that we won felt like a real triumph, especially as we were playing against some of America's most successful, iconic and well loved players of all time - later to become Hall of Famers,” says Walker.
The eight-woman U.S. team consisted of five future Hall of Fame players: Lopez, Bradley, Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Patty Sheehan. The other three weren’t exactly slouches either: Dottie Pepper, Rosie Jones and Cathy Gerring. The captain was yet another Hall of Fame player, Kathy Whitworth, the greatest winner in the history of the women’s game, In addition to Davies and Nicholas, Europe had Helen Alfredsson, Marie-Laure de Lorenzi, Trish Johnson, Liselotte Neumann, Dale Reid and Pam Wright.
“My main memory was of Cathy Gerring, after practicing all week with her playing the tee shots off the odd numbered holes in foursomes, looking with terror in her eyes on the way to the first tee and said, ‘Partner, I cannot do this. You’re going to have to hit the first shot,’” says Pepper. “Well, OK then… guess I was now playing the odd tee shots after not having practiced that way, for that format all week. We won.”
The gallery for that first Solheim Cup was small with a surprising number coming from Europe, where team competitions were much more common, such as World Cup soccer. Over the years, the galleries have grown in size and energy.
“The crowds weren’t very large but they were enthusiastic and patriotic, especially the Europeans fans who made the trip, which gave us a clue into just how much potential an event like this had,” says John Solheim. “It wasn’t televised and there was no Internet, but Karsten did have it videotaped and we produced an hour-long highlight film. The players realized they were part of something special and set their sights on being a member of the next team.”
There was one cloud hanging over the first Solheim Cup – America won with such ease it was feared it would continue to be one-sided. That was taken care of in the very next Solheim Cup, when Europe won 11.5 to 6.5 at Dalmahoy Country Club in Scotland.
“I thought that the competition, like the Ryder Cup, would grow as the matches became closer and Europe got more strength,” says Walker. And that’s exactly what happened. Since 2000, the U.S. has won the Solheim Cup five times and Europe four, with the Americans holding an overall 9-5 advantage.
“I don’t think anyone ever doubted that the event would catch on by the time Sunday evening arrived,” Pepper says. “I know I didn’t! And after the ’91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, there was no doubt that team fever had struck.”
Team fever had indeed struck, just as Karsten and Louise Solheim had imagined. And the event they envisioned was well on its way to greatness. The Cup that bears the Solheim name is one of the most prized in all of golf.