On September 23, the cream of European and American women’s golf will tee off for the Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle near Dublin. In the 21 years since the fixture began, the US has outplayed Europe by eight matches to three, and in 2009 it won convincingly at Rich Harvest Farms in Illinois. This year, however, the Europeans are on home turf and the match will be played on a course tailored to suit them.
My old friend Roddy Carr called me in the spring, full of excitement about the Killeen course, which Jack Nicklaus only finished laying out in 2009. When I was a kid I played golf with Roddy’s father Joe, a rangy Irishman from nearby Portmarnock. One of the British Isles’ finest golfers, Joe Carr won the Amateur Championship three times and captained the Royal and Ancient in 1991. He had style, and it was a joy to see him hit a long iron low into a stiff breeze or hole a curly putt with his four-iron.
Since those gentlemanly, amateur days, there has been a revolution in golf. The women’s game is a commercial success and, although exact figures aren’t available, it’s likely that as many as 500,000 women may have started playing in Europe during the past two years alone. The men’s tour, with its long courses and monstrous hitting, has little in common with the game most of us play. Women’s professional golf, on the other hand, driven by elegance and a hot short game, has struck a chord with many golfers and is attracting an enthusiastic following.
The biennial Solheim Cup has developed into one of golf’s most intense confrontations. Being selected to play in it is the highest achievement in the women’s game, and we can expect three days of close competition while the northern hemisphere’s stars play their hearts out for their countries. A gallery of over 120,000 is expected to support them, especially on the action-packed last day, when the 12 singles matches are played. I watched in Illinois two years ago, when the atmosphere was as tense as at a Ryder Cup. Emotions will run high again this year. “It’s win or die,” European vice-captain Annika Sörenstam told me.
The Solheim is played by teams of 12, selected partly on the basis of points gathered from the Ladies European Tour and the US Ladies Professional Golf Association. Rosie Jones, the American captain, is allocated two personal picks and Alison Nicholas, who leads the Europeans, gets four. Over three days they will play a mixture of foursomes, four-balls and singles – 28 games in total. As holders, the US will retain the cup if they win 14 points. Europe needs 14.5.
The Americans have a wealth of classy players to choose from and are experts at team-building. During the 2009 match at Rich Harvest Farms, they even adopted a team dog called Bunker and took him round the course in a buggy. They worked hard at cultivating the gallery, running into the crowd and high-fiving their supporters. They painted the national colours on their faces and nails, and wore the flag. The 2009 American captain Beth Daniel, who had made the inspired picks of prodigy Michelle Wie and the experienced Juli Inkster, spent days setting up the course, opening up the fairways and trimming the tall rough to suit her big-hitting players.
The US team is away from familiar surroundings this year, but will be the product of a competitive tour, while the Europeans will have a fanatical crowd behind them, singing, chanting and partisan. Europe has exciting new players to pick from – including the French Virginie Lagoutte-Clement and Christel Boeljon from Holland – and there will be glamour and athleticism as greats such as Laura Davies and Melissa Reid fight for points.
Roddy Carr showed a similar level of passion as he shouted down the phone that I should “get over here now, because they’ll close the course down before the match. It’s in Dunsany in County Meath. Thirty minutes from the airport.” I asked a friend from Portmarnock about Killeen. He told me, “It’s a beast; 7,600 yards, and the greens are big and swervy. It’s good to look at, but difficult.”
Nicklaus laid out the course on 350 acres of lush turf, over a rolling landscape littered with ancient woodland. The streams and small lakes are stocked with trout, and towering above is a Norman keep that was converted into a stately home during the 19th century. Close by, there’s a Dave Pelz scoring-game school where they teach putting and playing the wedge. Overall, Killeen feels quite American, which may help the visitors.
I asked Sörenstam, who is vice-captain under European skipper Alison Nicholas, what she thought of Killeen as a match-play course. “Incredible test, isn’t it?” she said. “Alison and I first spent some time on it last September; three of the girls came with us and played the course while we worked it out.
“We have tried to get a feel for it and figure out how it can be set up to our advantage. We looked at the positioning of the tees, run-offs round the greens and fairway bunkers. Where could we let the rough encroach a little more? The greens are big and full of undulations. You must make sure you leave yourself with a chance to get down in two putts. Course management is vital at Killeen.”
Sörenstam is a big asset for Europe. She is without doubt the greatest woman golfer of all time, garnering 24 points in eight Solheim Cups. She has now retired from the tour, but had 93 professional wins during her career and was renowned for her precision, strategic thinking, cast-iron swing and course analysis. After playing Killeen, I complained to her about the sand traps. “What on earth were you doing in bunkers?”, she replied.
She told me where the critical points would come: “There are some tough holes out there. I mean, hole 18, a sharp, right-hand dog leg around a corner of woodland, is a tricky par four up the hill into the prevailing wind. Pure risk and reward. The 449-yard par four at 17 will catch players out: a long drive over water – in fact, the water’s close to you all the way – and you have to decide how much of the corner to cut so you can take maybe a five-wood or less to the green. The short 16th is a tough hole too: 190 yards over water, then a bunker in front of the green with a small escape on the left side. The tee position is vital.”
The longer holes will also be tricky. She described the 15th, long and narrow and 564 yards: “The green is well bunkered and there are traps on the edge of the landing area when you play short.” I asked Nicholas if they would play the full length of the course, at 7,600 yards, and she said, “We’ll probably play it at around 1,000 yards shorter, depending on the weather.” Whatever the length, the players will need courage and a good short game.
At least the teams will find it easy to unwind afterwards, when they will be cosseted and given every comfort at Dunboyne Castle, a classy hotel near Killeen. There’s a spa and a gym, and South African chef Robin Aust will cater to dietary needs. The European team’s clothing will be equally exclusive: Irish designer Paul Costelloe has designed their playing kit as well as formal wear.
With Sörenstam’s words ringing in my ears, I played Killeen in the late spring. The turf was glowing lush and emerald green in the sunshine when I wandered onto the first, a straightforward 485-yard par four embellished by a tasteful bunker with a grass island in the shape of a shamrock. However well you hit your drive, it’s a long second, and there’s a kidney-shaped trap cut into the front of the green to deal with.
In the distance, the first of the glittering lakes awaits as you walk to the second tee. This was Nicklaus country all right, a narrow 613-yard right-to-left bender with water all down the left and archipelagos of bunkers on both sides of the fairway. It is the longest hole on the course, and when I eventually made it onto the green, which is the size of a small aircraft carrier, it was set diagonally left to right with steep run-offs at the back to capture adrenaline-charged chip shots and roll them down into the heather.
There are four par fives, four threes and 10 fours at Killeen and, with one or two exceptions (like the first and the short 14th), they keep you on your toes. I thought that the water-bound eighth, a 243-yard par three, was a bit steep to say the least, and that the 12th – 548 yards from the back tees, with a narrow fairway curving left to right, with woodland on the left – would give most of us sleepless nights.
But Sörenstam’s analysis of the finish made me truly appreciate that September’s biggest dramas will be played out on the last five holes. Killeen opens up as it draws to a close, and is more exposed to the wind. The final shot of the round, after fading your drive off the tee, is a tight mid-iron uphill towards the castle and a natural arena where, on September 25, the hilly little green will be surrounded by a vociferous Irish crowd.
I really enjoyed Killeen. It’s a fine match-play course and will produce very worthy winners – though this is Ireland in late September, so the weather might play a part. The Europeans have only won the Solheim Cup three times and the Americans will be fresh from a competitive tour. Can the Europeans do it?
I think that, with Sörenstam and Nicholas to inspire the team, they probably can. But what the organisers ultimately want is a grandstand finish. Melissa Reid and Paula Creamer, perhaps, all square and one to play for the cup on the final day. All down to nerves. It could happen.