How The Solheim Cup Was Lost

On Sunday I watched a pulsating finish to the 2015 Solheim Cup, the biennial golf competition between the ladies of Europe and America. Similar in format to the Ryder Cup, and played in alternating years to its big brother, it has also gained popularity in recent years as the matches become more competitive. This years event was won by half a point over three days of intense competition, effectively the difference between one putt dropping or not.

The golf was of a stunning standard, the St Leon Rot Golf Course in Germany beautifully presented, with the plentiful rain over the preceeding weeks resulting in soft greens and encouraging players to fire at the flags. There were birdies everywhere, and the result was in doubt throughout a final afternoon of fluctuating fortunes. It was another prime example of why golf, whether you like the game or not, offers sport of the highest drama.

And yet, the 2015 will not be remembered for the quality of play throughout the three days in the most pressurised of environments. It shall be remembered for an ugly moment on the final morning that effectively sealed the result in favour of the Americans.

For once in the controlled atmosphere of calculated decisions that the game rewards, players and captains had only the briefest of windows to do the right thing, and nobody on the European side took that opportunity to seize the initiative. As that window closed the game was gone, not in the bang of glorious golf, but the inert whimper of paralysis.

The fourball match between Europe’s Suzann Petterson and Charley Hull and America’s Alison Lee and Brittany Lincicome was All Square going down the 17th. Lee missed her birdie putt to win the hole and picked up her ball, assuming that Europe had conceded the return putt of no more than 14 inches. However, Pettersen told the referee there had been no concession and Europe were awarded the hole. Lee was wrong to pick up her ball without hearing a concession, but in my opinion Petterson was also wrong to press the point with such a tap-in. Heated huddles of conversation broke out on both sides as Europe sealed the match on the 18th green, which both Lee and Hull ended in tears. It seemed something would be done in order to straighten things out, but nothing emerged from the all the whispered debate.

The One That Got Away - Suzann Petterson and her infamous fisherman routine

The One That Got Away – Suzann Petterson and her infamous fisherman routine

It was not entirely her fault, but the blame has to rest on the shoulders of European captain and previous star player Carin Koch. She might say she hadn’t seen the length of the putt that wasn’t conceded and was told it was missable, but really that is irrelevent when things are clearly lurching out of control. By standing her ground, she not only fired-up the Americans for their stirring comeback, she perhaps even made our players feel sympathetic to the opposition cause. Guilt can be as powerful an emotion as passion.

As Rob Lee, voice of reason in the Sky Sports commentary booth aptly put it, “As a captain sometimes you’ve got to step up to the plate and make a decision. And she didn’t.”

The dismissive manner in which both Koch and Petterson shrugged off the questions later only amplified the criticism. Citing that “rules are rules” is completely missing the point, which is that golf has a fierce moral code and there is a massive difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the game.

The pretence that nothing was wrong is also slightly disingenuous because Dan Maselli, the American referee who followed the match and confirmed that the American players assumed the concession rather than hearing it, said that Koch had asked him on the 18th fairway “Is there anything we can do?” to which he replied “Yes, concede this hole.” Sadly, the European captain let the moment slip through her fingers, along with her dignity.

Controversy is no stranger to the Solheim Cup. In 2000 Annika Sorenstam holed a chip shot to pull her match level but the US team ordered the shot be retaken as she had played out of turn, even though her opponents were on the green. Again, in a mirror outcome of the divine retribution in Germany, Sorenstam lost her match but Europe claimed a righteous victory overall, despite the American captain saying they “have only the greatest respect for the rules of the game” (but obviously not for the game itself, or her opponents).

In that sense the whirlwind of American indignation that followed seems at best a little pious and at worst entirely hypocritical. And don’t get me started on the Ryder Cup where I was ready to board a plane and sort out all the boorish morons at the end of the Battle Of Brookline in 1999, a contest marred by disgraceful behaviour from the partisan home crowd which most US players chose to ignore. The real cost of all these unsavoury incidents is that the sporting contest gets forgotten.

You would have to go a long way to find a man more rampantly anti-American than myself for three days every other September, but I want us to smash the Yanks fairly, with dignity and honour. We are better than them, both at the game of golf and the grace with which we conduct ourselves! Last Sunday we weren’t; we let ourselves down.

I should think, and hope, that the shameful vitriol emanating Stateside through the cowards’ mask of social media will simmer down over the next few weeks. People make mistakes in the heat of battle, and it’s easy to judge from the comfort of your sofa. But what I found most distasteful about the whole sorry episode was that there was a faint whiff of cover-up in the interviews after the Cup was lost, as though our team had been groomed to present a unified line. I hope that the perspective afforded by time allows certain people the breathing space to reflect on the events and call it as it was. If not, I fear we will have lost the moral high-ground twice over, and be no better than our obscene trans-Atlantic cousins were in 1999 et al.

Petterson finally showed some remorse on Monday in a statement where she apologised for her behaviour and spoke about learning “a valuable lesson about what is truly important in this great game”. But Koch has been rather quiet about the whole thing, presumably knowing that she had helped to inflame the whole furore by her passive initial response, and pathetic defence of the European stance later.

Being a captain isn’t easy, but when you accept that position you also accept the responsibility for doing the right thing in tricky situations. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and a luxury not afforded to the history books that will simply record an American victory. But the situation still can and should be improved by Koch, so that at the very least we can go into the 2017 matches without being 1 down on the first tee.