Emotions run high during Solheim Cup
A few weeks ago, before her U.S. Solheim Cup team began packing for its trip to Ireland to play this week's matches against Europe, Rosie Jones continued the captain's standing tradition of presenting players and coaches with a specially selected gift.
Jones did not confirm that her offerings came with subliminal messages attached, but it is hard to imagine a better bet.
Jones' gifts were red, white and blue head covers. And not just any red, white and blue head covers. These were shaped like boxing gloves.
"It's a motivator to play hard and truly get in the spirit of 'Go Team, USA!' as we prepare to compete in Ireland," Jones said.
She did not add, "Let's get ready to rumble," probably only because Solheim Cup history suggests that is a given.
For a competition that did not begin until 1990 and is billed as an occasion to promote the game and its time-honored history of sportsmanship, the Solheim Cup sure has been infused with a lot of hot blood.
You think the Ryder Cup has passion?
The women have proved they can put it to shame.
Looking back, this heated history has Dottie Pepper's fingerprints all over it -- for which the Solheim Cup should forever be indebted to her.
Pepper, now a shoot-from-the-hip and respected golf analyst for NBC Sports, played for the United States in six consecutive Solheim Cups, beginning with the inaugural 1990 event. During a playing career that was cut short by injuries but still included 17 tour wins and two majors, Pepper was noted for her temper and competitiveness.
The Solheim Cup became her perfect stage.
It helped that the Solheim Cup made its debut at the time when the rivalry between Europe and the United States was rising to a heated peak, but nothing lit a fire quite like Pepper did with a single word.
In a closely contested final-day singles match with Laura Davies that had reached the 18th hole, Pepper watched as her Euro rival missed a final putt that would have halved the match.
Out of Pepper's mouth came one word: "Yes!"
Europe took offense, considering the act a breach of golf etiquette. Pepper, feisty to a fault, didn't apologize. Instead, she responded with, "I really don't care."
By 1998, Pepper had gotten so under the Euros' skin that in the days leading up to the matches, Annika Sorenstam -- polite, quiet, demure Annika Sorenstam -- brought a blow-up clown punching bag into the team room and pasted a picture of the American agitator's face on it.
The Europeans spent much of the week pounding away on the punching bag. Except, once play began, Pepper hit back. She went 4-0 for the week, powering the U.S. to another victory.
There were more hurt feelings that year when Sorenstam holed out a chip shot but was called for playing out of turn. The mistake easily could have been given a pass, but U.S. captain Pat Bradley and players Kelly Robbins and Pat Hurst demanded Sorenstam take the shot again. She missed, and later was in tears.
"We played within the rules of the game," Bradley said at the time. "When the rules of the game are upheld, the spirit of the game is upheld."
Europe argued that the spirit of sportsmanship, which distinguishes golf from other major sports, was not.
"It was very unsporting," Davies said.
Preparing for her 12th Solheim Cup appearance, Davies was asked this week at Killeen Castle about the history of spats between the two sides. "There's only been a couple," she told reporters. "We had a punch bag thing and we stabbed it once because Dottie Pepper annoyed us ... Annika actually stabbed it. So that was quite contentious. We enjoyed doing that.
"[And] they made us re-chip because of playing out of turn. It was crazy. And that caused a bit of a ruckus. The thing is, for me especially, because I've played out in America a long time now, most of these girls are friends of mine. Although you really want to beat them, you don't want to be nasty because they're mates of yours."
Sometimes even that does not matter.
In 2002, European captain Catrin Nilsmark, in prematch comments, called out the Americans, identifying Cristie Kerr as a brat and suggesting Michele Redman had no talent. Also, during that year's matches, Norway's Suzann Pettersen dropped an f-bomb during a live TV interview on NBC.
And then Pepper did it again.
Having moved from player to broadcaster, she was doing commentary during Golf Channel's coverage of the 2007 Solheim Cup in Halmstad, Sweden, and would have seemed far removed from making news. But as the Americans struggled early during the second day of play, Pepper uttered the words "chokin' freakin' dogs" on the air, thinking the network had gone to commercial.
Later, when asked about the comment, U.S. captain Betsy King did not choke back her words.
"The Solheim Cup is not about Dottie Pepper," King said. "The trouble is, the older she gets, the better she was."
Others may argue that Pepper only gets better -- for the Solheim Cup.
Two years ago in Chicago, as the U.S. won for the third consecutive time to improve to 8-3 in the competition, Christina Kim took the role of rabble-rousing American, upsetting the Europeans with what they saw as excessive celebration. Kim, a natural live wire, mugged for the crowds, high-fived fans and was a basic showboater during the week.
The overexuberance naturally drew criticism.
Even from, yep, Pepper, who in a column for Sports Illustrated suggested Kim had "Ochocinco syndrome."
"I know Christina Kim loves the galleries and is a ham, but she should be a little more respectful of the game," Pepper wrote. "In the NFL, she'd have been given 18 excessive celebration penalties"
Kim? She responded via Twitter.
"Love how Dottie Pepper said I had Ochocinco syndrome. Still makes me laugh. She was the MOST outrageous and discourteous player ever to be."
Match play begins Friday.
Ryder Cup, eat your heart out.