Mickey Walker: My Solheim Cup years

News & Tour

Former four-time captain Mickey Walker reflects on the highs and lows of leading team Europe in the Solheim Cup

Just as with the Ryder Cup in the men’s game, in women’s golf it is everyone’s goal to make the Solheim Cup side and win for their country, friends and family, team-mates and tour.

Both teams are filled with many of the world’s best players so can a captain have a direct influence on the result of the match? As a former four-time captain in the competition I do believe that they can and, although each captain will do things differently, every captain’s end goal is to do whatever they believe will bring out the best in their players. Whether it be by having their favourite food in the team room, creating a fun atmosphere or knowing everyone individually in order to know exactly how they like to prepare for what will probably be one of, if not the biggest stage of their careers.

When I captained Europe for the first time at Lake Nona, I really didn’t know some of the players well, or in the case of Pam Wright, not at all, since she had spent all of her professional playing career in America after the time that I had played on the LPGA Tour. So absolutely the first thing I recognised that I had to do if asked to be captain again was to spend time getting to know the players, their games and what made them tick. Also, it was important to develop the players’ trust so that they could speak openly to me knowing that what they said in private wouldn’t go any further.

Yes, our 4.5-11.5 loss wasn’t a great result but, given that we were up against an American team made up of Hall of Fame players who many of us had idolised, it wasn’t surprising. We were outputted and outplayed by a much stronger and more experienced team. I can remember Betsy King stating that she expected the Americans to win all 16 points so getting what we did seemed like a real achievement.

captaincy

One of the decisions I had to make prior to the week was who to pair Laura Davies with. I originally thought of putting Laura and Dale Reid together but after subsequent discussions with Laura, she thought Dale’s aggressive putting might mean facing a lot of putts coming back if they played foursomes together – and who is a fan of that length of putt?

Laura liked the idea of playing foursomes with Alison Nicholas. Ali was one of the stars of 1990 and was actually the player to get Laura through the opening few holes until the nerves had settled down. They beat Pat Bradley and Nancy Lopez in the very first match and would go on to form a winning foursomes partnership in the next two Solheim Cups.

After the matches Nancy persuaded Alison that she had the game to be successful on the LPGA Tour. Some 10 years later Alison won the US Women’s Open going head to head with Nancy and thus denying her the one major she coveted above all the others.

Two years later the cup was played at Dalmahoy with the teams being increased in size from eight to 10 players. My memories include the sodden course and players not being able to practise, our team having all sorts of problems with uniforms, so much so that we were literally taking shirts and sweaters from the backs of the volunteers who had the correct Solheim Cup logo, and the brilliance of Laura, who was unbeatable that week.

Beth Daniel gave an interview saying that only Laura and Lotta Neumann would be worthy of making the American team. She denied it, only for the reporter in question to produce a recording of the interview. That gave us added motivation  – if it was needed.

I made the somewhat controversial decision of not playing either Kitrina Douglas and Catrin Nilsmark until the singles which, in the next match, led to the Solheim family making it a rule of the competition that everyone had to play in at least one match prior to the singles.

I stand by that decision as I had what I considered to be four strong pairings that I put out for both the foursomes and fourballs and didn’t want to change them, which, in my opinion, would have weakened our team.

The next match was to be played at the iconic Greenbrier complex, one of the American luxury resorts that presidents visit and people aspire to be able to afford to visit. Among other tournaments it had previously hosted the Ryder Cup in 1979 and when we went there in 1994 Sam Snead was their honorary professional.

Of course in these early matches, the bigger the teams and the more points that were available definitely favoured the Americans as they had so much more strength in depth. At that time before the global development of golf, not many Europeans played full time on the LPGA Tour and some hadn’t ever played in America.

We held our own in the foursomes and fourballs to go into the final day level but crumbled like a pack of cards in the singles. The Americans were led by Dottie Pepper, who had been dreaming of getting revenge since Dalmahoy. I can’t ever remember anyone playing with the intensity that Dottie played with that week. When the singles draw came out and she was drawn against Nilsmark I was actually quite pleased because I felt that, if anyone could play their own game and not be intimidated by Dottie, it would be Catrin. Well, Catrin was one over par and lost 6&5! Dottie played like a woman possessed – no-one could have lived with her. Once again it seemed as if the Americans’ strength in depth and home advantage gave us a mountain to climb on Sunday.

Two years later we were to play at St Pierre in Wales and the format was now identical to the Ryder Cup with teams of 12 and 28 points to play for in total. I felt that because of the increased number of players and points the odds were stacked against us. In the first foursomes, we just avoided a whitewash as Nilsmark and Annika managed to get up and down from a greenside bunker on the 18th to salvage a half. Out on the course I had been stung in the eye by a bee and had an allergic reaction where my eye completely closed up.

I got whisked off the course by the St John ambulance and given an antihistamine injection, but by this stage one of the exhibitors in the tented village selling personalised merchandise had made me an eye patch with a European flag on it! Over the next three sessions and in front of big crowds we played some absolutely fabulous golf to claw our way into a 9–7 lead going into the singles but then once again we didn’t perform well only managing to get two points form a possible 12.

I had asked Pia Nilsson to be my vice-captain at St Pierre. Even then, with the increased number of matches and players, it was difficult to have time to spend with everyone and to get accurate assessments of how everyone was playing.

A few years later Dale Reid instigated the practice of having ‘helpers’ throughout the week who logged all the players’ practice rounds so that Dale could accurately assess how they were performing. It also provided the players with a bigger support network. Now it is standard practice for teams to have a handful of vice-captains.

For years after I was no longer captain of the European Team I would dream about the Solheim Cup, and endlessly mull over the decisions that I had or hadn’t made. I do regret not speaking to the team as a whole prior to the final day at St Pierre. That may or may not have made a difference but it seemed that we had fought so hard and played so well to take a two-point lead into the singles that we lost our focus on the last day.

Having scored brilliantly in the middle three sessions, with a couple of exceptions, our scoring was really poor in the singles. We were like a balloon that slowly but surely had the air let out of it. Of all my Solheim Cup experiences, the way that we lost in Wales was the worst that I’d ever felt. Even the post-match party didn’t help cheer me up.

 

RIP Louise

Louise Solheim, wife of Ping founder, Karsten Solheim passed away recently at the age of 99.

I first met Louise at the inaugural Solheim Cup in 1990. Then, and in the many times that I was in her company after that, I was struck by her thoughtful, gentle manner and her deep faith which permeated everything that she did.

Louise always maintained a low profile and left Karsten and her three sons to front their increasingly successful business. She saw her role as being a supportive wife, and as her family came along, a mother. At the time of her passing Louise had 14 grandchildren, 47 great grandchildren and 14 great, great grandchildren!

One of the many acts of kindness and generosity that typified the ethos of Louise, was that when I was the captain at St Pierre. Louise came up and handed me a simply wrapped slim, rectangularly-shaped parcel and said that the Solheim family would like to give me a gift in recognition of my captaincy. It was a beautiful gold necklace with a choker-style pendant attached depicting the Solheim Cup surrounded by four individual diamonds representing the number of times that I’d been the captain. The Solheim family have continued the tradition of giving all the subsequent captains an identical gift. I feel honoured to have known Louise Solheim – she will always be remembered.

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