As captain, Meg Mallon sets tone
PARKER, Colo. -- Poring over stats to picking up dry cleaning to ... um, pole dancing? Yes, captains at the Solheim Cup have done it all.
When the USA vs. Europe women's team golf competition starts Friday here at Colorado Golf Club, the captains' work will be on display. We'll see what pairings the United States' Meg Mallon and Europe's Liselotte Neumann come up with for the foursomes (alternate shot) and four-ball formats. We'll watch how they adjust between morning and afternoon, between Friday and Saturday and Sunday.
But their jobs started long before this week. During the two years leading up to the event, captains watch, study and talk to players, crunch stats and consult on everything from wardrobes to menus at team meals.
"It's amazing how much goes into this event," Mallon said.
And that's just the preparation. Then, Solheim week finally arrives, and captains frequently are the emotional fulcrums of their teams, which means their personalities can impact the mood of the players.
Mallon played on eight Solheim Cup teams under a variety of captains. The most serious? She said it was Judy Rankin, who was extremely thorough and detail-oriented in her two terms as captain (1996, '98). JoAnne Carner, Mallon said of the '94 U.S. captain, was more like, "You all know what you're doing, just go do it."
Who was the zaniest, if such a term can be used in golf?
"Nancy Lopez, probably," Mallon said of the 2005 U.S. captain. "She did a pole dance one day that was pretty exceptional. I think it loosened everybody up. And Patty Sheehan [2002, '03], she was great as far as keeping us loose, and she was fun to have around."
Rest assured, it was more or less a G-rated version of pole dancing, the kind of thing that would crack up the players when they were getting too tense. For her part, Mallon has such an easygoing personality that the American players seem very comfortable in the days going into the competition.
"I don't think I've ever laughed this much and have felt just so much at ease," said Paula Creamer, who has been one of the top U.S. players with an 11-3-5 record. "I think that's because of Meg. She's doing a good job of letting us do our own thing."
U.S. veteran Cristie Kerr added, "I think everyone on this team admires [Meg] and respects her. When she speaks, you listen. We have learned a lot from her, and it has united us as a team."
England's Alison Nicholas, Europe's captain in 2009 and '11, doesn't think captains are quite the major influence on the outcome that some do. Maybe it's the stiff-upper-lip English in her, but she doesn't talk of her time as captain as being a highly emotional experience, even though she certainly enjoyed it.
"It's important to have a good attitude and make sure the players have fun," said Nicholas, who led Europe to victory in Ireland in 2011. "But ultimately, they have to take the responsibility. I couldn't play for them.
"That said, over the years, there have been some very good captains on both sides. And just because your team loses doesn't mean you've been a bad captain. Overall, I'd say captains do have a little influence. But it's not the whole deal."
In Solheim play, the Americans have what might be perceived as an advantage in that they are all from the same country and speak the same language. That is never the case with the European team. This year, the countries of Norway, Scotland, Spain, Germany, England, Sweden, France and Italy are represented on the 12-player squad.
But Europe's 2013 leadership is all-Nordic; Neumann's assistants are fellow Swedes Annika Sorenstam and Carin Koch.
"It's been good for us being able to speak in Swedish here," Neumann said, grinning. "We can sneak off in a corner and chat.
"All of us have a lot of experience. Annika is really into stats, and that's been helpful. She is sort of keeping track on things and double-checking to make sure we don't forget anything."
Like all sports, golf has been influenced by the "advanced statistics" wave of the past several years. Sorenstam was known as a stats wonk during her playing career, so it's not surprising she's kept that role as an assistant captain.
For the United States, the stats geek is assistant Dottie Pepper.
"We went all the way back to Curtis Cup records," Pepper said in regard to the amateur competition between the U.S. and Great Britain. "Who had played best in what formats, who had played too much, who was maybe surprisingly poor in one format, but much better in another.
"I wanted us to be able to tell players, when they had to sit out, 'This is why.' And have the numbers to back that up. We did so much stuff. We looked at them in terms of weekend scoring in majors, par-5 scoring, par-4 scoring -- everything. I had great help from two friends who were statisticians who were looking for a project to do."
Use of advanced stats is one of the many ways the job of Solheim Cup captain has changed since the event began in 1990. Another is the individualized attention each player gets, and the amount of gear and goodies that are distributed.
The U.S. team room has a huge television and various games and electronic gadgets. Mallon joked that for her first Solheim playing appearance, in 1992, the only "device" in the U.S. team room was a toaster.
"We had peanut butter and jelly," Mallon said in regard to the menu. "Now you have gluten-free, dairy-free, pasta-free. It's unbelievable, but you want your team to be as comfortable as they can be and ready to play, so those things are important.
"Clothing is important. We used to wear sweaters that, in the rain, would go down to our knees. Now we have four or five seamstresses that are on site. So a lot more detail goes on now than what it used to be. But also it makes the players feel like performing well, and that's how I want them to feel."
Knowing what to say, and when
And, yes, feelings often do matter. So does force of personality.
"My first captain was Kathy Whitworth," Pepper said of playing in the inaugural Solheim Cup in 1990. "She was such a veteran of everything LPGA, that no one would dare question her. You just did what was said. And there was no history at all because it was the first one. Kathy's philosophy was to pair personalities together.
"Then you look at Carner -- she was an absolute hoot. From the start to the finish, she was like, 'We're going to go kick some butt.' She was very different than Pat Bradley , who was a worrywart, always trying to figure out what could go wrong. So the personalities really do impact the team."
Being able to read people is paramount. Rankin said during her experiences as captain, she found some players reacted well to getting as much information as she could give them. Others got to "overload" capacity quickly, so she backed off from them.
"Some captains just seem to completely endear themselves to their players," Rankin said. "I had a son who played high school football ... I don't think it's really any different than a coach on a football team that is really respected in life."
Of course, in general, most coaches in other sports are around their team for a long time. The Solheim is a three-day event every other year. Although some of the players were at Colorado Golf Club with their respective captains earlier this year, for the most part, the captain-player relationship -- in person -- lasts about a week.
Neumann is a big NFL fan, so she watches how much impact coaches have in that sport. She doesn't think it's all that comparable to being a Solheim captain.
"I feel like I want to be that strong, calm captain," said Neumann, who played on six Solheim teams. "Most of the time, I think, the players are happy to be there, they are totally motivated.
"So we might play some good music and have videos to give them an extra motivation. And I might say a few extra words to them, depending on how things go. But mostly it's just them knowing I'm there to support them."