Swings of emotion for U.S. golf
A couple of thoughts as ESPN's three weeks of live golf from the United Kingdom come to a close and the U.S. women attempt to regain the Solheim Cup next week in suburban Denver.
1. Can we finally put to rest the assumption that Americans are at a disadvantage playing links golf?
Scottish Open champion at Castle Stuart the week preceding the Open Championship: Phil Mickelson. Open champion at Muirfield: Phil Mickelson. Senior Open champion at Royal Birkdale: Mark Wiebe. Women's British Open champion at the St. Andrews Old Course: Stacy Lewis. Four-for-four for the USA on courses where the traditional default comment has been that players from the U.K., Ireland and Europe have a distinct advantage on the firm, rolling seaside layouts because they have played them more often.
What these three American players did was learn to adapt their equipment (Mickelson didn't even carry a driver), attitudes and shot shapes to the tests they faced. Mickelson learned, after 19 failed attempts at the Open Championship, to play shots with a lower trajectory and let those sometimes-crazy bounces come with a more "That's just what happens in links golf" attitude.
Wiebe, who didn't even arrive on site until less than 48 hours before his first-round tee time due to air-travel issues, seemed more concerned about his son Gunner's performance in the Colorado Open than his own in senior golf's last major of the season. With a preferred shot shape (left to right) that didn't fit Royal Birkdale's closing holes particularly well, he fired at flags when he could and played conservatively when he couldn't, eventually letting Bernhard Langer's double-bogey on the last hole in regulation open the door for his playoff victory.
Lewis traced her win to a walk in the rain when she first saw St. Andrews five years ago during the Curtis Cup. Being on the course without clubs allowed her to absorb and embrace the subtleties and quirkiness of the Scottish layout. A love affair began that would see her go 5-0 in that amateur match-play competition, and then this past Sunday close with two fabulous birdies to win her second career major and stop the Asian domination of the LPGA's majors at 10 straight.
2. There is NOTHING easy about being involved in selecting a team to bring the Solheim Cup back to the USA, even when you've never lost on home soil.
As one of two assistant captains to Meg Mallon, I can promise you Sunday was as gut-wrenching a day as I've had in quite some time.
With a new formula for choosing the American team (eight from a two-year point-earning process, the next two from the Rolex world rankings and then two at-large captain's picks), there were six players who could have actively impacted the points, rankings and selections in just the last nine holes.
I was calling the tournament from the analyst's position and at the same time crunching numbers, watching texts and emails fly in during commercial breaks as Meg and my fellow assistant, Laura Diaz, began the final decision-making process. Neither Meg nor I was ever a captain's pick in our Solheim Cup careers, making the entire experience even more emotional as we had to tell players whether they were in or out.
The brutally difficult decisions to tell players they were off the team, though, were outweighed by the reactions of our two picks, Gerina Piller and Michelle Wie.
Piller's reaction was like she had won the Miss America pageant -- the shocked gasp, hands up over the face and then a flood of tears as she started to comprehend what she had just been told. Meg went with her gut and more recent performance/improvement, as well as team chemistry, as the basis for both picks, but she was fully aware that both were going to raise some questions. Piller has never been on a stage as big as the Solheim Cup but comes with a background in team sports, positive energy and limitless physical abilities.
Now a captain's pick for the second time in her third Solheim Cup appearance (she was also a pick in 2009), Wie brings with her power that will fit a big, wide-open golf course; experience; confidence on the rise; and promise. There's no way to tell if she will ever live up to the potential she showed as a teenage amateur contending regularly in professional majors, but here is captain Mallon's hope: that Wie responds as positively as Adam Scott did when Greg Norman, as International captain, picked him for the 2009 Presidents Cup team.
Scott was falling through the rankings like a rock, going through a swing change, and didn't appear to bring a whole lot of positives to the team based on his form at the time. That pick literally turned Scott's career around, and he is now a major champion. Meg is hopeful that selecting Wie will have the same impact ... and, oh by the way, that we get the Solheim Cup back to this side of the pond, too!