SUGAR GROVE, Ill. (AP) — The Americans have stuck to a pretty tight script at the Solheim Cup this week: They talk about how much fun they’re having, how honored they are to represent their country and rave about what great shape the golf course is in.
Not Angela Stanford.
Stanford is sick of hearing what overwhelming favorites the Americans are when the Solheim Cup opens Friday. Never mind that the U.S. team includes two of the world’s four best players, while four of Europe’s players are ranked 125th or lower. Or that the United States has yet to lose on home soil, and has won the last two Solheim Cups. Or that the Europeans no longer have Annika Sorenstam, the best player in Solheim Cup history.
“We need to go out and play like we’re the underdogs because I think that they’re going to be ready to play and they’re going to be ready to fight,” Stanford, who has been in the top 10 in half her starts this year, including winning her fourth career title at the SBS Open, said Thursday.
“It’s one thing to think, yeah, we have a lot of talent and we’re stacked,” she added. “But you can’t go in thinking that the ball is just going to go in the hole. I mean, it’s still golf, it’s still match play, and they still have two major champions on their team and a boatload of experience.”
Now, a week ago, Stanford’s comments probably would have drawn an eye roll or two. Every team, no matter how dominant it is, trots out the same kind of line so as not to disrespect opponents and rile them up.
But that was before the stunning finish at the PGA Championship.
Tiger Woods had won the two weeks leading up to the PGA, was atop the leaderboard at Hazeltine National all week and was 14-for-14 when he began the final round of a major with a lead. Yet it was little-known Y.E. Yang who walked off with the Wanamaker Trophy, not Woods.
“Everyone knows we have not won on American soil,” Europe captain Alison Nicholas said. “There has to be a first time on some stage in some place. My word is, ‘possible.'”
Nicholas and U.S. captain Beth Daniel released their pairings Thursday night for the first opening-day matches, and there are two matches everyone will be keeping an eye on.
Cristie Kerr and Paula Kreamer, the third- and fourth-ranked players in the world, face Suzann Pettersen and Sophie Gustafson in the opening fourball match. In the final match, young guns Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie team up against Women’s British Open winner Catriona Matthew and Maria Hjorth.
In the other two matches, Helen Alfredsson and Tania Elosegui play Stanford and Juli Inkster; and Laura Davies and Becky Brewerton play Brittany Lang and Brittany Lincicome.
The first two days consist of 16 team matches and the tournament closes with 12 singles matches. As defending champions, the Americans need 14 of the 28 points to retain the cup. Europe needs 14 1/2.
On paper, the Americans would seem to have a huge advantage.
Of the 12 U.S. players, only Natalie Gulbis isn’t in the top 50 of the world rankings, and she’s at 51. Three players are in the top 10, and three more are in the top 25. The team has a total of 63 wins on the LPGA Tour – though, to be fair, Juli Inkster and her 31 victories kind of skews that.
And the U.S. players have combined to win 10 majors – though, again, Inkster is responsible for seven of those.
Kerr leads the LPGA Tour in scoring average (70.17) and top-10 finishes (11, in 17 starts). Creamer is right behind Kerr in top 10s (eight, 14), and leads the tour in greens hit. Lincicome’s game is back on track after a rough year last year, and Wie is finding her stride.
“The American team … is always first-class and they always come in playing really well, which they’ve done again,” Davies said.
Europe’s biggest problem is making up for the loss of Sorenstam, a staple of the team from 1994 to 2007. Her 22 match victories and 24 points are the most by any player, European or American.
But Europe has a “new” addition who could make a big impact.
Alfredsson was Europe’s captain two years ago, her playing career sidetracked by back and hamstring injuries. Healthy again, the 44-year-old is playing her best golf in years. Ranked 10th, she won the Evian Masters for a third time last season and was runner up at the U.S. Women’s Open.
This year, she’s got two top-10 finishes, including a tie for fifth at Evian.
Matthew won the Women’s British Open two weeks ago, and Anna Nordqvist won the LPGA Championship. And don’t forget Pettersen and Gustafson, both of whom have been solid in Solheim Cup play.
“They’ve got, I think, one of their beset teams they’ve ever had this year,” Inkster said.
The big-hitting Europeans also got a break with the site. At 6,670 yards, Rich Harvest Farms is the longest course yet for a Solheim Cup, and heavy rains Wednesday night did nothing to lighten the load.
“I’m one of the longer hitters, and I had three 4-irons into greens today, which is unbelievable,” Brittany Lincicome said. “If I’m saying it’s kind of long, it’s a good challenge out there.”
Just as the world rankings don’t mean anything, neither do driving averages. Match play can be a quirky thing, with entire events turning on a single putt. Two years ago, Europe led by a point going into Sunday’s matches only to watch the Americans run away with 8 1/2 of the 12 available points.
“Just because Europe may hit it a little farther than us, we’re up for the challenge,” Nicole Castrale said. “As Angela said, this is a match not on paper, we’re playing it on grass. So low score wins.”