Thursday, August 20, 2009

Solheim Cup Preview: Team Europe

Captain Alison Nicholas and her Annika-less team have absolutely nothing to lose in this year's Solheim Cup. They're playing on American soil, where a European team has never won, they're clearly outgunned and thinner than Team USA, and they had the misfortune of potentially stronger players having down years in 2009. Karen Stupples's impressive win over Amy Yang came 1 week too late, as did Melissa Reid's impressive performance in Wales, when they needed to step it up over the entire season to displace the top LET point-getters or convince Nicholas to give them a captain's pick. Stupples's emergency appendectomy and Reid's Jeong Jang-like wrist problems certainly didn't help on that front. But as someone whose name it would bother me to invoke once said during America's dark ages, not so long ago, "You fight with the army you have." And this edition of Team Euro may well have the power and experience to knock off even this loaded Team USA. If their famously mercurial leaders all play well consistently all competition, they could surprise a lot of people, including Hound Dog (who predicts an 18-10 US victory) and Brian Heard (who thinks it will be less of a blowout at 16.5-11.5). When you consider the kinds of players Captain Nicholas has available to deploy and their strength in team match play, this year's Solheim Cup is likely to be closer than anyone thinks. Consider this.

Laura Davies has competed in every Solheim Cup and although she is not nearly the player she used to be, she still had enough to charge from behind for a stirring win against a strong field in the Australian Women's Open this winter. Guess who she beat? Her rookie teammate, Tania Elosegui, who I had as one of my favorites at LPGA Q-School last season, but who earned such low status that she decided to play regularly on the LET instead and has earned a gold, 3 silvers, and a bronze in 11 events this season. By the way, Davies is coming off a top 10 in Wales, so she has some positive momentum heading into Friday. And Elosegui averages over 260 off the tee (although she only hits the fairway 64.4% of the time).

Even with Davies's driving average down in the mid-250s, Team Euro has a definite power advantage over Team USA. Suzann Pettersen was the best player in the world of women's golf at the end of 2007, and even though she hasn't won on the LPGA since then, she's kept playing near, at, or even above that level ever since. But while she's one of the longest hitters on the LPGA (and much more accurate than Wie or Lincicome), she's been outdriven on the LET by Solheim Cup teammates Sophie Gustafson, Helen Alfredsson (who bombs it less on the LPGA but is quite accurate off the tee there), Maria Hjorth, and Becky Brewerton, while Gwladys Nocera is about as long as Elosegui. While Brewerton's one of the hottest players on the LET right now and Nocera is unfairly maligned for her 91 on Thursday at the Women's British Open (she came back on Friday to go -4 over a 10-hole stretch, so she definitely has game), the rest are used to contending and winning on both tours. Sure, like Catriona Matthew, Hjorth is just coming back from childbirth, but Matthew's win at the WBO should show what new moms are capable of!

Team Euro really only has 1 precision player, Anna Nordqvist, who gives the squad 1 more 2009 major than Team USA. Diana Luna, who has won twice this year on tour and is coming off a top 10 in Wales, and Janice Moodie, who's a match-play machine, both hit it right around 250 off the tee, but aren't all that accurate. Still, joining Nordqvist with very high greens in regulation rates are Nocera, Elosegui, Hjorth, and Gustafson (all over 75%), while Luna, Alfredsson, and Davies also are good with their irons (with GIR rates of around 70%).

As for putting, Team Euro's birdie rates on the LET and LPGA are very high, for the most part, so you know they can get the ball in the cup, even if only Gustafson's, Alfredsson's, and Pettersen's putting stats really stand out, while Nordqvist's, Brewerton's, Davies's, and Matthew's are respectable.

So how would I put together Team Euro's players to build on their strengths and try to build up an early lead on Team USA? As with Team USA, I would use the alternate-shot format of foursomes to make my decisions on the best best-ball four-ball teams. The idea is to concentrate firepower on Friday. Here's the order I'd put my combos out in for afternoon foursomes:


Despite the relative age of Team Euro and the fact that 2 of their best players are coming off childbirth, I'd also seek to stack my Friday morning four-ball teams:


The goal is to build as big a lead as possible on Day 1, so I could cycle in the rest of the Solheim Cup rookies Saturday morning and rest Matthew, Moodie, Davies, and Brewerton. Here's how the morning four-ball teams would go off:


If Team Euro hadn't built up a big lead Friday, though, I'd call on Matthew and Moodie to replace Nocera and Luna, and sub Luna in for Nordqvist with Alfredsson.

The Saturday afternoon foursomes would look pretty much the same as Friday's, with 1 substitution:

Alfredsson-Nordqvist (although Hjorth could substitute for either)

That leaves singles, where the only way for Team Euro to win is to stack up their toughest players early and hope for late upsets on Sunday:

1. Davies
2. Alfredsson
3. Moodie
4. Matthew
5. Gustafson
6. Pettersen
7. Hjorth
8. Nordqvist
9. Nocera
10. Brewerton
11. Elosequi
12. Luna

Team Euro should be much stronger in 2011, what with up-and-coming new pros (and new pros-to-be) Melissa Reid, Sandra Gal, Pernilla Lindberg, Dewi Claire Schreefel, Maria Hernandez, Azahara Munoz, and Carlota Ciganda likely to join Nordqvist and Elosegui, as well as stalwarts like Pettersen, Gustafson, and Hjorth--provided the LET changes its selection criteria to limit the LET to the top 3 points-getters and rely on the world rankings for its next 6 players, leaving the next captain with 3 wild cards. With almost all of the best European golfers practically playing full-time on the LPGA (or expected to do so by next season), they have to change their current 5-4-3 selection ratio if they want to stay competitive. As for this year, with so many streaky golfers playing so many matches and with so much trouble off the tee and on approach shots waiting for the generally less accurate Team Euro, it's an open question how much they'll be able to take advantage of their power and experience advantages on Team USA. I have a feeling this one's going to come down to the wire. Let's call it 15-13 for the Americans.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff, TC. But should you be taking shots at the US team's weight like that ? ("they're...thinner than Team USA") :-)

Laura Davies driving stats have always been skewed because she hits her driving iron more than she hits her driver. She can still pound it out there 280-290 when she needs.

I'm not sold that this is a start to finish Team USA lock.

Hack said...

I'm kind of with Court in that I just have a weird feeling like the US team is even believing their own hype perhaps a tad too much?

At 4-1 I'd pop down a c note for fun. Er, if I had a bookie I mean.


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