Preparedness is a core tenet of US Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis’ philosophy heading into Finca Cortesin this year, emphasising that there should be no surprises for her 12 American players from when they first step foot in Spain through the end of the competition. The priority ties back to Lewis’s first taste of the Solheim Cup in 2011 when she went 1-3-0 in Ireland.
“I was a fish out of water,” Lewis said. “I went in there as one of the top Americans, and I had no idea what to expect and probably wasn’t as prepared as I should have been for what was coming.”
The 15-13 US loss in Lewis’s rookie start continued a notable Solheim Cup trend where the more experienced team won more often. Dating back to 2011, the roster with the most past Solheim appearances has gone 5-1, with Europe’s six-rookie squad in 2013 the only team to win without the experience edge. That’s a higher winning percentage than playing on home soil, which surprisingly is 3-3 since 2011. Experience correlating to winning is a consistent theme, as the roster with that advantage is 8-4 since 2000.
This year Europe’s 31 past combined Solheim Cup appearances is more than double the US (15), the third consecutive time the Europeans hold the advantage. Lewis’ goal of properly preparing her five rookies could prove the difference between the US winning or witnessing the first-ever European three-peat.
“You really just need to have the first one under your belt and then just hope you don’t collapse from it because, I mean, Solheim can make or break people,” two-time Cup veteran Madelene Sagstrom said.
Lewis’ education for her potential rookies started in summer 2022 due to how many differences there are at a Solheim Cup week compared with a typical LPGA week. Those changes start as soon as players arrive at the course, when players generally set their schedules, with the potentially only firm commitment out of their hands at the start of a regular tournament week being their pro-am tee time. At the Cup, players must attend different events daily, starting with a welcome party on Monday, a photo shoot on Tuesday, a Wednesday night gala and Thursday’s opening ceremony. Team meetings for the players to discuss strategy are sprinkled throughout the days before the competition begins.
Players must also prepare for the golf somewhere in their blocked-out calendars. Solheim Cup practice rounds are also different from those on tour, with nine holes taking about three hours due to working through the intricacies of foursomes and fourball with partners, including potentially playing with another type of ball than they normally use.
“If you don’t know what to expect and you go hard, hard, hard, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, all of a sudden you come to Thursday and it’s the opening ceremonies, and you’re exhausted,” US assistant captain Morgan Pressel said.
Charley Hull, a five-time Cup veteran, has a solution for pacing herself during the week that Lewis likely won’t recommend to one of her rookies. Hull skips some late evening team meetings to prioritise her rest. “I do a few [meetings] in the week, but it’s just sometimes the first few days where I just fall asleep early,” Hull said.
Seeing Hull missing at a team meeting is a bit of a running gag for the Europeans. Once they recognise that Hull won’t be there, they turn and ask her close friend Georgia Hall where her compatriot is. Hall, usually, has no idea. “[They ask me] like I’m her mother,” Hall joked. “But that’s OK. I’ve been used to that for a long time.”
When the start of the competition arrives, the value of previous Cup experience shows itself almost immediately on the first tee, one of the most raucous settings in professional golf. To get over the shock of how loud the tee box can get, Lewis, in 2019 at Gleneagles, advised her injury replacement Ally Ewing to spend time near the grandstands to feel the pulsating roars and its ceaseless “ole” chants.
“You just can’t really feel your arms or your body much,” Carlota Ciganda said. “You’re just trying to make contact, and hopefully the ball goes in the fairway.”
The energy from the first tee is one of many jolts of adrenaline players have to handle during a Solheim Cup. Hall recalled standing on the tee playing in a foursomes match partnered with Anna Nordqvist, with the veteran telling Hall she’d like to be left with 80 yards in on a short par 4. With what Hall believed was the right club in hand, she muscled her tee shot to 30 yards away from the green. Angel Yin similarly saw an adrenaline boost off the tee, making headlines during her 2017 rookie debut with a driving average of 340 yards, almost 70 yards farther than her season average. Processing the adrenaline was a big takeaway for Yin from her 2017 debut to her 2019 appearance.
“I was able to play my game more, think more clearly in situations, and then be able to ride that wave [of adrenaline] instead of trying to control it,” Yin said.
That adrenaline difference is also felt on the greens, although players have all played well enough to face multiple pressure putts in their careers. But they deal with more putts under pressure in a Solheim Cup than anywhere else.
“Nearly every match comes down to the last few holes, and you have to make that putt,” Hall said. “It’s definitely nerve-racking at times.”
Fortunately for Lewis, however, she has to prepare her rookies less for the competition’s format than other parts of a Solheim Cup thanks to more team match-play tournaments in the amateur game. Rose Zhang represented the US in numerous team match-play tournaments before turning pro: the Junior Solheim Cup in 2017 and 2019, Junior Ryder Cup in 2018, Curtis Cup in 2021 and 2022, and the Palmer Cup last year. On top of that she competed in singles match play during her two years at Stanford. Of Lewis’ rookies, only Cheyenne Knight did not represent the US in a team event as an amateur.
“Rose is the only true rookie, but she’s probably got more experience than a lot of us combined, in big events, that is,” Lewis said.
The exposure to team match play before turning professional might be why both the Americans and Europeans have had rookies be among the top-point scorers in the last two Solheim Cups. At Gleneagles in 2019, Nelly Korda earned 3.5 points for the US, while Celine Boutier posted 4 for Europe. At Inverness in 2021, Leona Maguire scored 4.5 points for the Europeans, while Jennifer Kupcho notched 2.5 points for the Americans. All four represented their countries in amateur team match-play events.
However, that amateur experience will never be able to replicate the Solheim Cup’s energy.
“I think until you experience it, you don’t really understand what everybody says when you’re dead by the end of the week,” Kupcho said. “You literally are dead by the end of the week. The rookies are going to understand once they get there, but I still don’t think I fully comprehend it having gone through it once.”
Main image: American Solheim Cup rookies Andrea Lee, Rose Zhang and Lilia Vu meet with the media in Spain. Zhang is the youngest, but has the most experience with this team match play format. Angel Martinez