'The ball was never going to drop': Madelene Sagstrom and Nelly Korda in rule controversy over putt at Solheim Cup

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Nelly Korda putt on 13th green
Nelly Korda putt on 13th green

Europe left the Inverness Club here with a record advantage after the first day of the Solheim Cup - but they also went to their beds with a grievance. If Catriona Matthew’s team end up losing by a point then prepare for this rules row to escalate still further.

Matthew would certainly have taken the 51/2-21/2 lead – their largest ever after the first day – as the blue-and-gold brigade try to retain this trophy for just the second time in the biennial dust-up’s 31-year history. Yet what the Scot would not have welcomed was the controversy on the 13th green in the top match of the afternoon fourballs.

With the contest tied, world No 1 Nelly Korda was faced with a 20-footer for an eagle to go one-up. Her curling putt agonisingly stayed above ground, with Korda sinking to her knees in frustration. It was at that point when Madelene Sagstrom walked up and picked up the ball before throwing it to Korda. Everyone believed the par-five had been halved in four.

Except the match referee, American Missy Jones, deduced that as the ball was overhanging the hole, Korda had the right to walk up to the ball herself and then wait 10 seconds to see if it toppled in. “That was too soon,” Jones told Sagstrom, with the Swede remonstrating that “the ball was never going to drop”.

Pictures backed her up. Matthew became involved and asked Jones to check with the chief referee. The group continued to play, unsure whether the match was standing at all square or one-up to Korda and Ally Ewing.

Word eventually came through that the original decision stood with a statement saying: “The chief referee, match referee, observer and TV observer all deemed that Nelly Korda’s third shot on No. 13 was overhanging the hole and was picked up by her opponent before the waiting time had ended. Therefore, her third stroke was treated as holed.”

It was all so inevitable when Korda and Ewing beat Sagstrom and Dane Nanna Koerstz Madsen lost one-down - the difference was that dubious verdict. It was cruel on the Scandinavians. “It was definitely awkward,” Korda said. “You don't want to win a hole like that. I got off the green, and we kind of were talking, and Missy already came up to us and was like, ‘I'm calling it in, I want to check it out’. We didn't even have a say honestly.”

Could the Americans have conceded the next hole to put the balance books straight? It is a question is being asked and there definitely is bad blood. Sagstrom expressed her opinion that “it was her [Korda’s] caddie that told the rules official” and he also revealed that words were expressed on the 14th. “We got in that little argument with Nelly on that tee box, because she obviously knew that it was not going to go in, but the rules are rules, so that's what she wants to follow,” she said.

Sagstrom was understandably emotional. “I believe in integrity and the honour of the game of golf, and I would never pick up a putt that had a chance to go in,” she said. “I personally don't agree with the decision with the ball being on the edge, but I didn't follow the 10-second rule, so it sucks right now because I feel like I let my team down”.

Koertz Madsen exonerated her partner of all blame. “People were starting yelling terrible stuff,” the first-time said. “It was just not fun for Madelene to be in that position. I think she felt bad, and she really shouldn't. Golf shouldn't go down to a putt that would never have gone in. She didn't do anything. If they want to win on something like that, that's on them.”

It is fair to say social media was also on Sagstrom’s side and this support inevitably only intensified when the screenshots were published showing the unlikelihood of the ball dropping. A hurricane might have been required.

Thomas Bjorn, Sagstrom’s countryman and the 2018 Ryder Cup captain, tweeted: “Let’s be clear, as a player you know instantly if the ball has a chance of dropping. The American players made no claim so this is solely on the referees. Not clear enough for me for the ref to make that decision.”

Jones, a much-respected and experienced official whose integrity should not be questioned, plainly believed the rule is clear and that it was clear that the ball was overhanging. Rule 13.3b states: “If the opponent in match play deliberately lifts or moves the player’s ball overhanging the hole before the waiting time has ended, the player’s ball is treated as holed with the previous stroke.”

Jones’s judgement was backed by her superiors, but as Korda and Ewing seemed to have no complaints about Sagstrom’s action at the time, it was surely a situation in which there was enough doubt to move on. "It was a fuzzy picture and I would say, inconclusive," Matthew said. Once again, has golf shot itself in the Footjoys.

“Do rules officials in golf realise how unbelievably stupid they make our game look?” Bjorn later added.

Sometimes it is the players. At the 2015 Solheim Cup when Suzann Pettersen, now one of Matthew’s assistant captains, claimed a hole after Alison Lee picked up an 18-inch putt presuming it had been conceded. Pettersen later admitted she was in the wrong and the US team used that controiversy as inspiration to launch a fightback to win that match in Germany.

Matthew will no doubt look to employ any sense of injustice in a similar vein, although the visitors plainly fancy the task regardless. They “won” the morning foursomes 31/2-½ their biggest success in the opening session on US soil.

It was a thrilling final hour in those morning skirmishes. In 16 previous Solheims never has each of the matches in the first session gone all the way to the 18th green. Indeed, in 42 Ryder Cups that has yet to happen.

Europe won the two games it was leading in on the 18th tee as well as the one that was halved - Charley Hull playing a magnificent approach to four feet for Emily Pedersen to convert and so complete the winning comeback from being two down with four to play against Lexi Thompson and Brittany Altomare.

And then there was the one in which they were down. Poor Ewing missed a three-footer, leaving Georgia Hall and Celine Boutier to celebrate the half point after being two down with two to go,

Perhaps the most notable performance, however, came from Leona Maguire, Ireland’s first ever representative in this match, who made a mockery of her debutant status by taking down the Korda sisters. Jess and Nelly won both foursomes at Gleneagles by 6&4 and 6&5 and as Maguire said “they are their golden pair”.

United States' Jessica Korda and Nelly Korda walk off the green after their loss during the foursome matches - AP
United States' Jessica Korda and Nelly Korda walk off the green after their loss during the foursome matches - AP

Maguire was fearless and brilliant as she and Mel Reid won on the 18th. In the fourballs she made it two out of two, teaming up with Hall to beat Altomare and Yealimi Noh on the last.

Matilda Castren was another ultra-impressive first-timer, the Finn partnering Anna Nordqvist, the Swede who won the Women’s Open last month, to victory in both the foursomes and the fourballs, the latter a 4&3 romp over Mina Haringae and Thompson.

Depending on your opinion of the Korda incident, it could be said that the only true hole point won by the Americans came courtesy of Lizette Salas’s magnficent approach on the 18th to see her and Jennifer Kupcho inch past Carlota Ciganda and Sophia Popov. If only this day could be remembered simply for the quality of the golf.