You knew this was something different, something special. By the time the sun rose on the second and third days of the 2019 Solheim Cup, the crisp air in the Ochil Hills surrounding Glen Devon and Glen Eagles had a charge to it, like freshly dried linen, fibers standing on end.
The first tee at the PGA Centenary Course at the Gleneagles Resort had a gladiator look to it, with arena seating on three sides that would have made Nero blink. It was the exact same footprint and seating setup the European Tour had used when Scotland hosted the Ryder Cup in 2014. And if you attended that men’s event - if you had been standing near the first tee that summer and slowly turned, taking in a panoramic gander at the sea of humanity – you knew that this view in 2019 for the Solheim Cup was exactly the same.
That week, women’s sport in Europe changed for good and forever.
From the beginning, women were a part of the Gleneagles resort, which opened in 1924 and was dubbed the “Riviera of the Highlands.” With a stone hotel that could have been a manor house for a sword-wielding lord in a bygone era, the resort and the grounds surrounding it maintained a stately air. There are still stables and bowling lawns, residences that look like they’ve been there for centuries, and cobblestone drives where you can almost hear the clacking of freshly shod hooves. Photos of properly attired ladies recreating on the grounds, especially the King’s and Queen’s golf courses, which opened in 1919, prior to the completion of the hotel, adorn many hallways.
The name has nothing to do with Eagles, despite the resort’s intricate logo of a raptor in glorious flight. It is a malaprop of glen eaglais, which is, itself, a mangling of glen ecclesia, glen of the church. The reference is to the chapel of Saint Mungo, patron saint and founder of the city of Glasgow. But inconvenient etymology didn’t stop the Scottish tourist bureau from commissioning a spectacular ice sculpture of an eagle during a Solheim Cup reception at the hotel.
By then the 2019 Solheim Cup was an unqualified success. Crowds exceeded expectations and the buzz around the countryside grew louder by the minute. This was both a pleasant surprise and genuine relief. In the months leading up to the Solheim Cup, more than a few observers voiced concern about how Scots would embrace the premier event in women’s golf. Obvious comparisons to the Ryder Cup would be drawn. How would these matches fare in a nation where women’s sport struggled to gain traction?
The answer could be found in plain sight. It could be seen in the queues outside the mammoth merchandise tent. It could be found in the standing-room-only crowd at the opening ceremonies. You could find it in the costumes, bright and ostentatious, worn by fans, many of whom walked well over a mile in full regalia to get to the golf course.
You could hear it in the songs echoing from the grandstands, not one or two voices, and not all women, but a grand and enthusiastic chorus. And you could feel it in your chest as cheers reverberated with each player introduction.
For fans of women’s golf, these signs brought a tear to the eye. When the Solheim Cup began at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando in 1990, the spartan crowds looked like they had shown up for the Friends & Family Open. Twenty-nine years later, the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles was the most watched women’s sporting event in Scotland’s history.
The fact that the matches themselves proved thrilling – the closest contest in the three-decade history of the event – helped. Europe, led by popular Scot, Captain Catriona Matthew, rallied to win on the last putt of the last match on the 18th green. Suzann Pettersen rolled in an 8-footer for birdie, dropped her putter, yelled in both celebration and relief, and then promptly retired from competitive golf – arguably the greatest walk-off moment in sports.
But even if the outcome had gone the other way, the success of the event, and the precedent it set for women’s sports throughout Europe, would have been the same. No more will women’s sport be viewed as second class, even in a country less than a generation removed from signs on private-club gates that read, “No women or dogs.”
Legislators can force integration, but events change attitudes.
Golf, in particular the 2019 Solheim Cup, did that in Scotland. That is well worth remembering the next time the matches roll around.