It’s great the­ater even with­out best play­ers

The Morning Call - - VARSITY - By Doug Ferguson AP Golf Writer

The stage alone makes this the most ex­cit­ing week of the year in women’s golf.

The Sol­heim Cup de­liv­ers more pomp, more pas­sion and more raw emo­tion than any other event on the sched­ule.

Hugs give way to hand­shakes af­ter the fi­nal hole. For three days, and some­times longer, friends be­come the fiercest of ri­vals. It be­comes per­sonal.

And it doesn’t mat­ter which team has bet­ter play­ers, who has more ma­jors or a higher world rank­ing. This is match play. This is all about the flag.

The one per­son re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing it such a big week? Seve Balles­teros, of course. How else to ex­plain why golf can be so com­pelling when the best play­ers aren’t even there?

It’s been that way for the bet­ter part of two decades, from when Se Ri Pak of South Korea de­vel­oped a na­tion of stars, Kar­rie Webb of Aus­tralia was win­ning ma­jors at a faster rate than any­one and Lorena Ochoa of Mex­ico was No. 1 in the world.

None of that mat­ters. It’s the United States against Europe. It’s re­ally that sim­ple.

The flag and the col­ors on the bags are more mean­ing­ful than the names stitched on them.

The Sol­heim Cup be­gan in 1990, and un­like the Ry­der Cup, it didn’t take some 50 years for it to get at­ten­tion.

It helped that con­ti­nen­tal Europe had been in­vited to the Ry­der Cup af­fair in 1979, giv­ing Balles­teros a decade to in­ject his will and his pur­pose into the matches. Even bet­ter was that Europe had cap­tured the cup three straight times when the Sol­heim Cup was held for the first time.

Sure, there have been enough drama-filled mo­ments for the Sol­heim Cup to de­velop its own per­son­al­ity.

Dot­tie Pep­per an­gered Euro­peans so much with her high en­ergy and big celebratio­ns that they put her name on a bop bag and took turns punch­ing it dur­ing the ’98 matches at Muir­field Vil­lage. Two years later at Loch Lomond, Pat Bradley fol­lowed the rules, though per­haps not the spirit, when she made An­nika Soren­stam re­play a birdie chip she had made be­cause Soren­stam in­ad­ver­tently went out of turn.

Ali­son Lee needed a 12-foot putt to win the hole in a tight match in 2015, missed, and when Charley Hull walked away as the Ger­man crowd cheered, Lee picked up her ball. That’s when Suzann Pet­tersen, stand­ing on the far end of the green, said she never con­ceded the 16-inch putt.

Put the Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans to­gether in golf, no mat­ter the names or pedi­gree, and there are bound to be fire­works.

That both teams col­lec­tively have only three play­ers from the top 15 in the world hardly mat­ters when the matches start Fri­day at Gle­nea­gles in Scot­land. It’s as rel­e­vant now as when the United States (Bradley, Beth Daniel, Betsy King) and Europe (Soren­stam, Laura Davies, He­len Al­freds­son) ruled women’s golf.

Even so, the dis­par­ity is get­ting wider.

Webb won the ca­reer Grand Slam in a span of eight ma­jors when she was the dom­i­nant fig­ure in women’s golf. Pak car­ried the South Korean flag on her own, win­ning four ma­jors in five years, be­fore what seemed like an en­tire na­tion fol­lowed her to Amer­ica.

Now, the Sol­heim Cup teams are loaded with what can be de­scribed as also-rans in the world of women’s golf.

Play­ers from five coun­tries out­side the U.S. and Europe oc­cupy 12 of the top 15 spots in the world rank­ing. That in­cludes Jin Young Ko, a two-time ma­jor win­ner this year, Canada’s Brooke Hen­der­son and Thai­land’s Ariya Ju­tanu­garn.

Since the last Sol­heim Cup was played, those 12 play­ers have com­bined to win 33 times on LPGA Tour (47 times in­cludes the Ladies Euro­pean Tour and LPGA Tours in Ja­pan and Korea), in­clud­ing six of the 11 ma­jors. The U.S. and Euro­pean teams com­bined have won 14 times on the LPGA Tour (23 times world­wide) and two ma­jors.

The Amer­i­can team has four play­ers who have yet to win on the LPGA Tour, and three oth­ers who have won only once. Half of the Euro­pean team is out­side the top 50 in the world rank­ing.

This prob­lem is not unique to women’s golf. The PGA Tour ran into this back in the early 1990s with the emer­gence of Greg Nor­man and Nick Price, and then Ernie Els and Vi­jay Singh. So it cre­ated the Pres­i­dents Cup, which has been suc­cess­ful in sales but not so much in com­pe­ti­tion.

The LPGA Tour, the most suc­cess­ful women’s sports league in the world, doesn’t have that kind of money. In­stead, it cre­ated the In­ter­na­tional Crown, held ev­ery two years for eight coun­tries (four play­ers each) that ad­vance through group play.

The men would do well to copy the event ex­cept that it would take away from the Pres­i­dents Cup. Their loss.

For now, the best in women’s golf will be rel­e­gated to the side­lines as U.S. cap­tain Juli Inkster tries to win for a record third time, with nine play­ers who have never com­peted in a Sol­heim Cup away from home. Europe hopes to har­ness good vibes from the men win­ning the Ry­der Cup on the same course five years ago.

It should be a good show.

Put the Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans to­gether and that’s usu­ally the case, no mat­ter who’s play­ing.

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