GLENEAGLES, Perthshire, Scotland – Rarely in sports does reality match expectation. More often than not, the happening falls short of the hype. But the 14½-13½ Solheim Cup victory by Europe over the United States on Sunday at Gleneagles was better than advertised – almost better than imaginable.
You’d have to search far and wide to find a more dramatic finish anywhere in the history of sports. With the last shot of the day, Suzann Pettersen – a controversial captain’s pick – rolled in a 7-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to secure the victory. A miss and the U.S. would have won for the third consecutive time.
“Like the Ryder Cup, this has just grown so hugely,” said Catriona Matthew, the Scottish woman who captained Europe to victory in her homeland. “It came down to the last putt on the last hole. You can’t get more exciting than that.”
The victory by Europe denied Juli Inkster a chance to become the only captain with three victories and it stopped the Americans from winning three in a row for the third time in the competition. The Solheim Cup now stand 10-6 in favor of the United States.
“I knew Suzann knew that the Cup was on the line,” Inkster said. “It was impressive, but that’s why Suzann is Suzann.”
Then, when asked what she’d say to those who contend this might be the most intense event in women’s sports, Inkster said: “I’d say they are right. I think a lot of people underestimate women’s golf and that these athletes don’t get the credit they deserve. We have to grind for everything we get.”
It was a fitting conclusion to a contest that was as close as could be for all three days. Coming into Sunday’s singles, the match is was tied 8-8. On Sunday, five of the 12 matches were decided on the 18th green and four others on No. 17.
With nine matches completed, the Americans led 13½-11½. They need only a halve in the final three points to retain the Cup on a tie and one point to win it outright. Anna Nordqvist got the first point Europe needed by closing out Morgan Pressel, 4 and 3.
Then the fireworks began.
In Match 11, Bronte Law made a birdie on No. 14 to pull even with Ally McDonald, then birdied again on No. 16 to go 1 up. When McDonald failed to get up-and-down out of the bunker on No. 17, Europe won the match. Each side now had 13½ points.
Now it was all down to the match between Pettersen and Marina Alex. Pettersen was 2 up through 11 holes but Alex won Nos. 13 and 14 to square things. After three consecutive halved holes, the match went to No. 18, a par-5 reachable in two if the drive finds the fairway, which both players failed to do.
They hit their lay-up shots to about the same distance – 85 yards. Pettersen hit first, playing her wedge shot past the hole and spinning it back to 7 feet. Alex hit a similar approach, ending up 10 feet from the cup.
The putt by Alex barely slid by on the right side. Then it was all in Pettersen’s hands, the 38-year-old stalwart for Europe playing in her ninth Solheim Cup.
Suzann, who gave birth last year, had barely played for two full seasons. When Catriona Matthew made her a captain’s pick, it caused more than a few arched eyebrows. They are arched no longer.
“I mean, can you ask for more?” Pettersen said. “The last putt to win the Cup, when it's that close? History was just made, to win here in front of the Scottish crowd. I could never in a million miles dream. This is it. This is the last you'll see of me playing in the Solheim. I can't express it any better. Nothing beats the Solheim Cup in my career.”
To make the drama of the day even more perfect, Pettersen then announced she was retiring from the game.
The quality of play for the entire competition was matched by the enthusiasm of the spectators and the passionate way in which the players embraced the spectacle. Nearly two hours before the first tee time on Sunday, the grandstand surrounding the first tee was packed with singing, dancing, chanting spectators with fans lining the fairway from tee to green.
As Danielle Kang stepped up to hit the first shot of the day, she acknowledged the cheers with a wave then put her hand to her heart, soaking in the moment. Then she signaled to the crowd to resume cheering and ripped her drive, saluting U.S. Captain Juli Inkster with a double clench-fist gesture as she walked off the tee.
“She asked to go first,” Inkster said when questioned about her decision to lead off singles with Kang.
The atmosphere on the first tee was both passionate and polite, the sportsmanship of the crowd pretty much flawless. American Angel Yin was greeted by the fans singing “Angel of the Morning” while Caroline Masson of Europe led the spectators in the chorus of “Sweet Caroline.”
Anne van Dam, Pettersen and Law also asked for noise during their opening tee shots, Suzann throwing a pumped fist into the Scottish sky after smashing her drive.
It was that kind of week. The quality of play on Saturday in vicious wind was extremely impressive and what followed in singles play on Sunday could not have been scripted by Hollywood’s finest writers.
This was an event that had as many stars as adorned the uniforms of the American team. Georgia Hall and Celine Boutier both won four points for Europe while Jessica and Nelly Korda each went 3-0-1 for the Yanks.
“We didn’t get the win, but it was a great day for women’s golf,” Jessica Korda said.
And that pretty much was the most succinct – and accurate – summation of a truly memorable Solheim Cup. This was not only the best Solheim Cup ever played, it was one of the best sporting events ever played. And we get to do it all again in two years at Inverness in Toledo.