CASARES, Spain – The Solheim Cup kicks off Friday along the Spanish coast, with the biggest event in women’s golf leading directly into next week’s Ryder Cup in Rome.
It’s a team golf doubleheader with plenty of intrigue.
Here are some of the hottest topics at Finca Cortesin:
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST STORYLINE?
For the first time, Europe could win three consecutive Solheim Cups.
And it might be their best chance.
European captain Suzann Pettersen says this is the strongest group they’ve ever assembled, and now they get the added benefit of playing on home soil. Since the cup’s inception in 1990, the U.S. has won just three times overseas.
The Americans have already lost four of the last six cups, but these things tend to be cyclical. The Americans won three in a row from 2003-07, followed by two consecutive wins by Europe, then back-to-back victories for the Americans, and now Europe’s bid for the three-peat.
Both Pettersen and Lewis believe the Europeans to be the favorites this week in Spain.
WHO’S THE FAVORITE?
Vegas says the Americans, slightly. Pettersen says they aren’t hiding from the favored status. American skipper Stacy Lewis wisely followed her opponent’s lead and declared that the U.S. is the underdog.
Does any of the pre-tournament conjecture matter?
Not really. It’s simply how the outcome will be framed.
On paper, as usual, the Americans have an edge in the world rankings, with all 12 players ranked inside the top 50 (average 24.2). The Europeans have a pair of players outside the top 100 in Caroline Hedwall (No. 121) and Emily Pedersen (No. 122), but they both have previous Solheim experience.
WHO ARE THE TEAM LEADERS?
U.S. assistant Morgan Pressel made an interesting observation that this was the quietest group that she’s been a part of. That’s not to say that the players weren’t cohesive or invested in the team. It’s just about how differently this group of players approaches its work – fiercely competitive, yes, but perhaps not the most vocal. Pressel thought the group’s largely reserved personalities could be an asset.
But with the matches about to begin, it begs the question, at least on the American side: Who is the leader among the players?
For the Europeans, it’s obvious, the players’ roles more clearly defined: Anna Nordqvist the sage veteran; the Swedish duo of Maja Stark and Linn Grant the most dynamic; Charley Hull the emotional spark plug.
But for the Americans, it’s less clear.
“I actually don’t think there’s one player that has a bigger leadership role than the other,” said world No. 3 Nelly Korda. “I think we’re all trying to be equals on the team. We’re all trying to play the same part. Obviously, some players have more experience than the others, but as a team we all have an equal partnership.”
At Solheim Cup, Linn Grant and Maja Stark will make sure they don’t make a mistake like one they made as amateurs
WHO HAS THE EDGE, ROOKIE-WISE?
This might be the most heralded group of newcomers in tournament history.
Of the five American rookies, two have won major championships this season: Lilia Vu reached world No. 1 this year after capturing both the Chevron and Women’s Open, while Allisen Corpuz was the U.S. Women’s Open champion. At 20, Rose Zhang is easily the youngest competitor on either side, but she was a world-beating amateur who won in her LPGA debut this season. Cheyenne Knight and Andrea Lee have also won on the LPGA in the past two seasons.
The rookies on the European side aren’t slouches either, especially with Stark, 23, and Grant, 24, making their marks on the LPGA this year. A formidable duo that has competed with and against each other for much of their careers, they join newcomer Gemma Dryburgh, the 30-year-old Scot who won on the LPGA tour last fall.
“Just because you’re a rookie doesn’t mean that you can’t play well,” said Nordqivst, who is making her eighth start in this event. She pointed to the breakout performance two years ago of Leona Maguire, who went 4-0-1 in her first cup and led the Europeans to a rare win in the States.
Nordqvist said it’s hard to prepare a teammate for the nerves and adrenaline rush they’ll experience on the first tee; it’s why she thinks it’s always beneficial to pair a newcomer with a veteran, so they have someone to lean on. She also always advises the younger players to gird themselves for the long run-up to the event, with myriad dinners, team gatherings and media responsibilities.
“The girls that are rookies, I think they bring a lot of good energy and that fearlessness to the team,” she said. “They’re looking forward, but experience definitely won’t hurt you.”
WHY IS NORDQVIST SERVING TWO ROLES?
Nordqvist is the only player on either side to sit in for two press conferences this week.
That’s because she has dual responsibilities.
Nordqvist, who is making her eighth Solheim Cup appearance, is the first European playing vice captain in event history. Juli Inkster double-dipped in 2011 for the U.S. side.
In her previous seven matches Nordqvist has amassed a record of 14-10-3, helping the team to four victories during her tenure. Early in the process Pettersen named Nordqvist an assistant for these matches, but the 36-year-old Swede also made it abundantly clear at the time that she intended to be on the active roster, too.
Ranked 38th in the world, Nordqvist easily made the team. Though it hasn’t been the smoothest year for the three-time major winner, she has posted three top-10s and six top-25s while juggling multiple responsibilities.
“It’s been a little bit extra,” she said, “but I knew that when I took on the role. It’s just been amazing being a part of all the work. I’m very honored to have both roles.”
Being so active on the LPGA and Ladies European Tour, Nordqvist said that the position has offered her a few advantages.
“Knowing that I play with all these players and I know these players, I feel like they’re pretty comfortable coming up to me, giving us feedback where I can raise it to the other captains,” she said. “So far, I feel like I’ve done pretty well. I’m excited to play, and I know everything is going to be handled when I’m on the course.”
WHAT ARE SOME UNIQUE FEATURES OF THE COURSE?
It starts at the first hole: a drivable par 4 that, on the scorecard, measures 280 yards, with water protecting the left side of the green. That should prove reachable for many in the field, particularly those who prefer to hit the club with the largest sweet spot on the nerviest shot of the day. (It’s a roughly 245-yard carry over the water.) The layup is straightforward but could leave a tricky pitch to a large, undulating green.
The last five holes also present some swing potential: No. 14 is a short recovery hole; Nos. 15 and 16 are demanding par 4s; the 177-yard 17th is the shortest par 3 on the course; and the finishing hole is a par 5 that could be reachable with the right wind.
Finca Cortesin is a grueling walk, with the course built into the slope of the Sierra Bermeja Mountain Range. Facing long and difficult hikes up some of the hills, several players and caddies took the opportunity to hitch a ride from volunteers in practice rounds. The sloping terrain could also make it difficult for the 10,000 or so fans they’re expecting each day.
The taxing walk, in addition to the stress and pressure of the competitions, could lead to a few strategy changes for the captains. It wouldn’t be a surprise if even the teams’ best players didn’t compete in all five matches. Lewis didn’t expect any American to play all five.
“It’s really hilly – you’re going to hear that from a lot of players and caddies,” Ally Ewing said. “So the recovery off the golf course is going to be really important. It’s a long week as it is, so taking care of our feet and our bodies off the course is going to be really important.”
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES IN CAPTAIN’S STRATEGIES?
Lewis’ longtime sponsor is KPMG, so it’s little surprise that she’s tapped into the data and analytics to inform not just her team composition but also the potential pairings. She’s gone so far as to use strokes-gained data in practice rounds, to give the captain a better sense of who’s playing their best this week.
Lewis has also abandoned the pod system that was popularized in the late 2000s, hoping that a return to a more team-oriented approach will help the Americans win for the first time since 2017.
“Not that the pod system was a bad thing by any means,” Lexi Thompson said, “but I think Stacy has a great strategy in mind and just all keeping us together and not really breaking us apart. We all get along very well, and we know each other’s games well too, so that always helps.”
Pettersen, meanwhile, was always more of a feel player throughout her decorated career, and she’s using the same instincts to guide her early strategy. The Stark-Linn partnership, for instance, has been in the works for a year. She told the team on Monday what the pairings would be, after more than a month of discussion, and the four days of preparation here on-site simply allowed the players to acclimate themselves to the course and their partnerships.
“What I’ve emphasized the most is transparency,” Pettersen said. “I want the players to be part of the decisions that we make. The more we can do it as a team, the stronger we stand together. That’s always what I appreciated the most as a player.”