ANDALUCIA, Spain – For the casual fan, fire and emotion make the game fun to watch. Sure, skill attracts discerning eyeballs. A golfer can appreciate the purity of a languid Nelly Korda swing, or the talent and touch required to hit a wedge like Celine Boutier. But for the drive-by viewer, the person who hears that there’s an international match going on and says “Oh, let me tune in and root for the flag,” passion is important.
On Saturday morning, that viewer was treated to a doozy.
Match 12 saw the most demonstrative duo on the U.S. side, Danielle Kang and Andrea Lee, go up against the pair of talented Swedish rookies, Maja Stark and Linn Grant in foursomes. No matter the score, followers of the women’s game knew that this one would include fire, fist pumps, crowd engagement and terrific golf shots.
It started right away. While the rest of the players had the first-tee music turned off and the crowd quieted once they were ready to hit, Kang, who hit the first tee shot for the Americans, asked that the volume go up and the crowd get louder. It didn’t help. Even though Kang hit a perfectly fine hybrid into the fairway, Stark and Grant birdied the first hole to take an early 1-up lead.
That’s where it stayed for the first three holes. Those two Euros are a driven bunch, strong willed and just as emotional as their American counterparts. A day earlier, they led off in the first match and looked wide-eyed and nervous. After publicly and privately lobbying Captain Suzann Pettersen to play together – Stark actually said it would be stupid for them not to be paired during an interview at The Amundi Evian Championship – they lost 2 and 1 to Lexi Thompson and Megan Khang in the first session of day one. Friday afternoon, Pettersen split them up to great effect. Grant and Carlota Ciganda won 4 and 2 over Ally Ewing and Angel Yin, and Stark paired with Emily Kristine Pedersen in fourball to tie Jennifer Kupcho and Allisen Corpuz
Keeping Stark and Grant apart on Friday might have been smart, but it was wise, especially given how attuned Captain Pettersen has been to her players from the beginning.
A birdie from Kang and Lee on the par-5 4th tied the match and led to raised fists and resounding shouts.
Not to be outdone, Stark charged the hole on eight with arms akimbo after Grant made birdie to regain a 1-up lead. They walked off the green with more high-fives, grinning from ear to ear as the competition began to heat up.
A 35-footer by Kang tied the match again on 12. The Americans, too, celebrated with high-fives and handshakes, a ritual they perfected on day one. That was Kang’s second time making a long one, with the first coming on 9 when another birdie from 25 feet squared the match and led to another arm-raising celebration.
Ten minutes later, Stark striped a short iron into 13, her eyes tracking between the ball and the flag. As the ball spun to a stop 3 feet behind the hole, another round of high-fives and pumped-up chatter ensued.
Grant drained that birdie to retake a 1-up lead. And fists went skyward once more.
Back and forth it went. When Stark rammed in an uphill 18-footer to take a 1-up lead on 17 and ensure at least a half point for Europe, the cheers reverberated off the mountains.
Stark then ripped her drive on the par-5 18th, followed by Grant smashing a 3-wood into the greenside bunker. A well-played bunker shot left Grant with a 9-footer to win a much-needed full point for Europe.
It never left the center of the hole.
And when it fell, Grant and Stark embraced as shouts of release echoed around Finca Cortesin.
The U.S. leads 7-5 going into the Saturday afternoon fourball session. Regardless of that outcome, Captain Pettersen had to be thankful that she went with her gut. Maja Stark and Linn Grant look like they will be a force for Europe for some time to come. But they already knew that.