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8th Solheim Cup Preview

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Only one year removed from a sensational final-round comeback on Sunday, the United States will defend their Solheim Cup against a potent European squad this week at Barseback Golf & Country Club in Malmo, Sweden. Traditionally, the Solheim Cup is spaced out over two-year intervals but since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the Ryder Cup back a full year, the Solheim Cup was played as scheduled last year. Not wanting to compete with the Ryder Cup every year, it was decided the Solheim Cup would be competed two years in a row, but going forward, the event will take place on odd-numbered years.

Certainly

the Ryder Cup has taken center stage as golf's preeminent international team competition and depending on whom you ask, it might be golf's greatest showcase. The Solheim Cup is not the Ryder Cup, but it's getting there.

Who can forget the stories of gamesmanship by Seve Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup? Or the unfortunate scene at the 17th green at the Country Club in 1999 when Justin Leonard holed the 45-foot birdie putt?

Well the Solheim Cup is not without its share of ugly incidents.

There were the stories that when American stalwart Dottie Pepper celebrated too hard in 1998, European team members , Laura Davies and Helen Alfredsson hung Pepper's picture on a punching bag and vented their frustrations in a more civilized manner than a right cross to Pepper's jaw.

In 2000 at Loch Lomond, Sorenstam and Janice Moodie were engaged in a classic fourball battle with Kelly Robbins and Pat Hurst that had to be completed Sunday morning. On the 13th hole, Sorenstam sank a 25-foot birdie chip to seemingly put the Europeans in good shape. American captain Pat Bradley asked her to replay the shot because Bradley felt that Robbins was farther away. Sorenstam did. She didn't hole the chip this time but Hurst drained a birdie putt to win the hole. Sorenstam began to cry. Bradley was within her rights to ask Sorenstam to do it, but it didn't exactly ring of sportsmanship or class.

Last year, Catrin Nilsmark, who is guiding this year's team, went to town on some of the American players. She called Cristie Kerr "a brat," said Michele Redman has "no talent" and Laura Diaz has a "cocky attitude."

Nilsmark wasn't even captain yet!

So emotions run high in the Solheim Cup. Not exactly a stunning revelation because any time national pride is the only prize at the end of the day, players have different feelings.

And these feelings are often manifested for two different reasons. The Americans believe they are superior and intend to prove it to the Europeans. The Europeans feel they are disrespected by the Americans and intend to prove otherwise.

The U.S. side might have a point. They are 5-2 in the competition including last year's comeback on Sunday. Sheehan's troops were down 9-7 after a stunning European sweep of Saturday afternoon's fourball matches. Sheehan brought out heavy artillery early in the form of reigning U.S. Women's Open champion and Diaz, who emerged as one of America's top players. They handled their foes and the rest of the team picked up the slack to win 15 1/2 - 12 1/2.

Aside from Nilsmark's sudden case of foot-in-mouth syndrome, there was nary a problem.

But now Nilsmark is in charge and in her native Sweden none the less. Barseback hosted this year's Scandinavian Masters on the European Tour and Adam Scott won with an 11-under-par 277 total. The course blends a perfect mix of length and accuracy as the rough is thick and tee shots need to be in correct places, especially on dogleg holes.

So what kind of team does Nilsmark bring into the Solheim Cup? Well topped the points list so that should tell you something. The best player in women's golf and two-time major winner in 2003 will lead the European squad and, like Nilsmark, the Swede is at home.

Joining Sorenstam in automatic qualifying were Davies, the only player who will play in all eight Solheim Cups, Sophie Gustafson, the Ladies European Tour Order of Merit leader and girlfriend of LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw, Mhairi McKay, the 36-hole leader of this year's U.S. Open, Iben Tinning, Ana Belen Sanchez and Elisabeth Esterl. The last three aren't household names in the States but all are known for their ball-striking and Sanchez is long off the tee while Esterl is known as a world-class putter.

The European side has only seven automatic qualifiers so Nilsmark's captain's picks are crucial. She tabbed Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, the Nabisco winner, Carin Koch, undefeated in two Solheim Cups, Suzann Pettersen, Moodie and Catriona Matthew. The last three all play the majority of their golf in America on the LPGA Tour.

The American side stacks up as usual. Inkster, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon, Rosie Jones and Kelly Robbins have played in a combined 26 Solheim Cups before this one. Kerr, Diaz, Redman and Wendy Ward all have experience while the final qualifier Angela Stanford lost a heartbreaking playoff to Hilary Lunke at this year's U.S. Open.

Sheehan, who was brilliant as a captain last year, picked rookie Heather Bowie and then shocked the golf world with Kelli Kuehne. Kuehne is 45th on the LPGA Tour money list this year and went 0-3 in her Solheim Cup debut last year. This might be the strangest (no pun intended) captain's pick since Lanny Wadkins selected Curtis Strange to round out his Ryder Cup team in 1995.

When trying to handicap this year's event, one thing came into mind and that was the 1997 Ryder Cup. The event moved out the United Kingdom to Valderrama in Spain and the captain was local icon Ballesteros. This year's Solheim Cup moves to Sweden with Nilsmark in charge and if this is anything like '97, the Swedes should turn out en masse to support their countrywomen.

The Europeans look like the pick. Sorenstam, Koch and Nilsmark will be supreme crowd favorites and this European side is the best ever. Meunier-Lebouc, Gustafson, Davies, Koch and Pettersen are as good as it gets in golf and are playing steady golf.

For the Americans, the only players who are in form at the moment are Inkster, Daniel, Mallon and Jones. All over the age of 40 and when 36 holes a day is a possibility, age can certainly be a factor. Obviously having these four players as your strongest is not a problem but look at the rest of the team.

Kerr, Diaz, Kuehne and Redman have done very little in 2003 and aside from the U.S. Women's Open playoff for Robbins, she has no top-10s. That leaves the rookies and Ward and that's a lot to ask of them.

The wave of European support should be enough to carry them to a relatively comfortable victory and should provide for a very intense Solheim Cup.

Hopefully one devoid of brats, tears or punching bags.

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