Fatigue factor? Captains’ strategies put to the test during Solheim Sunday singles
CASARES, Spain – With the sun setting Saturday on another marathon day at the Solheim Cup, three of America’s best players, in full uniform, were posted up on the back of two red E-Z-GO carts watching Europe’s ironwomen churn their weary legs toward the clubhouse at the top of the hill.
After 12 hours of nonstop play at Finca Cortesin, the Europeans’ historic early deficit wasn’t just reduced but altogether eliminated. It’s all tied up, 8-8, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the bold, inspired decision by captain Suzann Pettersen to send out not one … not two … but three players for all four team sessions. That hasn’t happened in nearly 20 years, and it directly contradicted Pettersen’s claim earlier this week that this European team was the strongest and deepest group they’ve ever assembled.
Then again, these were unprecedented times.
Never had the Americans raced out to a perfect start in an opening session of the Solheim Cup, and it left Pettersen with little choice but to send out her hottest players, again and again and again, just to stay in touch.
They won the Friday afternoon fourballs, 3-1, the momentum of the day seeming to flip on the final green with Lexi Thompson’s shank-heard-’round-Spain.
Then they split the Saturday morning foursomes, with the young Swedish duo of Linn Grant and Maja Stark prevailing in an epic final match, capped by a clutch 5-footer for birdie on the closing par 5.
And now they were headed back out in the afternoon with a sense of urgency, needing to close the gap heading into a singles session that the Europeans have won or tied all but once since 2011 (a 30.5-29.5 edge overall).
Staked to a two-point lead at the halfway mark, U.S. captain Stacy Lewis had different priorities – and the luxury of resting a few of her top players. That’s why Allisen Corpuz, Megan Khang and Thompson (with their combined 6-1-2 record this week) were squired around in a cart late Saturday, their clubs tucked neatly away in the team room. Lewis had suggested at the start of the week that no player on the U.S. side would go all five sessions: “They all need some rest at some point.” And so this was their turn.
That’s also been the Americans’ unofficial game plan over the past decade. No U.S. player has gone the distance since 2011, the captains perhaps cognizant of what happened that year, when Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr logged every team session and then lost their singles matches in what became a two-point defeat for the Americans.
“We’ve always wanted our players to be fresh for Sunday,” Lewis said. “This thing, it always comes down to Sunday. So we wanted our players to be fresh. This golf course and this walk is brutal. I don’t care what kind of shape you’re in – it’s a hard walk.
“So I just wanted our players to be fresh and, truthfully, we were fortunate to get off to such a good start on Friday that it didn’t force our hand. We weren’t forced to go play anybody five.”
And the unbeaten performances of Corpuz and Khang didn’t lead to any second-guessing, strategy-wise?
“Not at all,” Lewis said.
The Europeans have almost always taken a different tactic. Whatever the reason – need, experience, lack of depth, hot form – at least one European player has played all five sessions in each of the last five cups. But Pettersen’s three horses-for-courses this week were the most they’ve had since 2005, when captain Catrin Nilsmark relied on four players to go each session.
Pettersen said Saturday night that her initial plan was to actually send out more players for every team session than just three.
She didn’t know, exactly. “At least” five or six, she said.
“It’s always nice to have options,” Pettersen said. “This is a different event. It’s about energy, adrenaline, momentum. It was literally almost a coin flip for some of them who I picked at the end [to play all five]. But we tried to base it off stats, tried to match up as good as we could, and it worked out fairly good.”
It was yet another reminder that Pettersen, the captain, is a throwback to a bygone European era and a stark contrast to her number-crunching counterpart. Pettersen relies more on instincts and feel than stats and data insights. She delivers fiery speeches instead of coddling. She wants to win, by any means necessary, even if it means potentially damaging egos and straining relationships.
She practically dismissed the idea of fatigue in the biggest event in the women’s game.
“They can handle it,” she sniffed.
“You’re young, you’re fresh, you’re ready to go, you’re hungry. These girls are here to play, so they just said whatever you want, they will do it. So I think it’s been working fairly good so far.”
Indeed, the European players weren’t about to complain about the extra workload, either.
Rookie Linn Grant summoned her best form of the week Saturday afternoon, in her fourth straight session, when she was 7 under on her own ball. If she feels tired Sunday, the 24-year-old Swede said, “I’ll just tell myself it doesn’t exist.”
Leona Maguire faded late in the Saturday morning foursomes, squandering an early advantage, and then told Pettersen afterward: “I need someone with energy for this afternoon.” Fortunately, Charley Hull packs lots of it, even if she’s been derailed this week by a neck sprain. Operating at about 70% fitness, Hull had a perfect vantage point for another vintage match-play performance from Maguire, who played her 15 holes in 7 under par.
It was the first time all week Maguire didn’t see the 18th hole.
“It’s fine,” Maguire said. “When you play well, there’s lots of energy.”
And then there was Emily Pedersen, who at No. 122 in the world is the lowest-ranked player in the competition. The 27-year-old Dane would be the first to admit that it’s been a disappointing season, what without a single top-15. Entering the week it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Pettersen stashed her on the bench, as she did with Caroline Hedwall, who didn’t see any game action until Saturday afternoon and proceeded to lose her fourball match. And yet, over the past few weeks, Pedersen has found herself training for this moment, preparing to answer the call if her captain needed her – even to go all five matches in three days.
Standing on the 17th green, after running her record to 2-1-1 for the week, Pederson said she “felt good” but was already looking forward to the singles session starting three hours later, at 11:10 a.m. local time.
“I’ve been worked out hard. I’ve been working out mentally to get myself in shape for this,” Pedersen said. “I said to Suzann: ‘I’ll do whatever you need to me to do.’ So I was prepared that I had to be physically strong, mentally strong to be able to do five. And I think I’ve done so.”
It’s too early to tell, of course, which strategy has worked.
Did Pettersen run her best players – who have combined for 7 1/2 of the team’s eight points – ragged before the all-important singles session?
Did Lewis miss an opportunity to maintain momentum and possibly put away the cup early?
For now, the match is tied. The quality of play has been excellent. And the captains are convinced, perhaps now more than ever, that their master plan was right.