What a matchplay double-header we’ve got coming up this weekend and next with the Solheim Cup and the Ryder Cup, Europe’s gals bidding for their third win in a row and the guys out to avenge the ten-point thrashing administered at Whistling Straits by one of the strongest teams the USA has ever fielded.
With home advantage in both cases, the ladies at Finca Cortesin in Spain, the men at Marco Simone in Italy, Europe goes into battle with a degree of optimism. The betting says Suzann Pettersen’s Solheim squad has the better chance - it’s pretty much 11/10 each of two with 12/1 the tied match - and if you went by combined world rankings with the Americans more than 200 points superior, it would be a no-brainer.
But, as we have come to know down the years, rankings (based on 72-hole strokeplay golf) count for little in assessing 18-hole head-to-heads. More relevant perhaps is that Europe has five in the world’s top 20 (Celine Boutier, Charley Hull, Linn Grant, Georgia Hall and heroine of the last encounter Leona Maguire), the USA only four Lilia Vu, Nelly Korda, Allisen Corpuz and Megan Khang).
Europe’s weakness, if there is one, is in the tail, two of the wild cards, Denmark’s Emily Kristine Pedersen and Swede Caroline Hedwall, are well outside the top 100. Hedwall is the Ian Poulter equivalent, she is inspired by, and an inspiration to, the team environment. A big personality, she uniquely won all five of her games when Europe walloped the USA 18-10 in Colorado. But that was ten years ago and, although a winner on the LET circuit as recently as last November, she is not the same force now. The captain has played a hunch in giving wild cards to this Scandinavian pair at the expense of higher-ranked contenders. Will it pay off?
The last two matches have been fiendishly close, as was the last one I attended at Killeen Castle in 2011 and the one that the Americans won in Germany in 2015. With two current Major champions in Lilia Vu and Allisen Corpuz to back up their star name Nelly Korda, this looks a stronger squad than the one they took to Gleneagles four years ago and the 2021 battle in Ohio.
Anyone who saw the composed, classy Vu wreck Hull’s dream of winning the AIG Open at Walton Heath to land her second Major of the year - she had won the Chevron in April - knew they were watching a special talent. She will take some off the pressure off superstar Korda and the US top scorer honours is surely between those two.
Europeans are now winning and contending more on the LPGA circuit, Scottish newcomer Gemma Dryburgh and Lee Grant, also a DP World Tour winner against the guys last year, were the latest to break through but it’s the performances of Boutier, Hull and Maguire that will probably decide who takes home the trophy.
World No. 5 Boutier is playing out of her skin with three victories this year, highlighted by her first major in the Evian on home soil in France, while Hull’s two second places in majors, the US Open and the British equivalent, have been augmented by an even closer near-miss when edged out by Minjee Lee in a playoff for the Kroger Queen City Championship in Cincinnati.
Finca Cortesin, a handsome well-bunkered 2009 layout designed by American Cabell Robinson, is an ideal course for matchplay with plenty of hole-swapping opportunities. A fraction over 6,900 yards, the par 72 setup has five par fives and five par threes. It hosted three Volvo Match Play Championships between 2009 and 2012, won by Ross Fisher, Ian Poulter and Nicolas Colsaerts.
If the course doesn’t give Europe an advantage, the partisan crowd will. One thing’s for sure: the lone Spaniard in the team, Carlota Ciganda, won’t go short of love. I narrowly favour the Americans, not enough to back them, but suggest Vu and Boutier, both around 6/1 for their respective team’s top scorer, as punting opportunities.
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