Why are the Americans having so much fun in the Solheim Cup?
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- There was pingpong and Jenga and cornhole at Team USA's hotel this week, though no one had much time to play any of them. Country music star Toby Keith talked to the team in the locker room on Thursday night, during opening ceremonies. Keith sang two songs, including a new one he wrote about his golf game called "S---ty Golfer."
At night, before bedtime, the U.S. women pile in on bean bags and couches and watch inspirational videos. Jack Nicklaus made one of the tapes, telling them that he'd be watching.
Golf can be a lonely sport, unless you're rich and accomplished enough to be surrounded by an entourage, which is why so many players on the LPGA Tour eagerly await the Solheim Cup every two years.
For some, it's their first foray into team sports. It's also an opportunity to play in front of tens of thousands of fans, crowds that are considerably bigger than at their tournaments on the LPGA and Ladies European Tour.
"This is our Olympics," said Lizette Salas, a 28-year-old Californian who is playing in her third Solheim Cup.
"This is where you set all the egos aside and you become one. It's so difficult to get 12 women, 15 women including captains, to get on the same page. But this year, it's been falling together so easy and so comfortably that we're just having fun. I think every part of this experience is fun. We're awfully busy, but this isn't something we should take for granted."
The U.S. team members are having so much fun together that they've built a commanding 10½-5½ lead over Europe entering the final day -- Sunday's singles play at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club.
It's an interesting mix of players, from 39-year-old mom Cristie Kerr (who played in her first Solheim in 2002), to unknown teen Angel Yin, to the very well-known Michelle Wie (who is so marketable she has her own line of Nike apparel). Despite her fame, Wie wasn't above being teased Friday afternoon when she wore the wrong jersey for her entire round.
The Americans are having a blast, imbued by the patriotism and energy of the event, which was played Saturday in front of an estimated 25,000 fans. The tournament's organizers said they would not release official attendance figures until late Sunday, but The Des Moines Register reported earlier in the week that more than 120,000 advance tickets were sold for the weeklong event, which began with the PING Junior Solheim Cup on Monday and culminated with the USA-Europe competition that started Friday and concludes Sunday. According to the Register, an attendance of 120,000 would make it the biggest international athletic event ever held in Iowa. It would also be a Solheim Cup record.
Though the morning round was pushed up an hour to 7:10 a.m. CT, fans packed the bleachers around the first tee. A young blond-haired man belted out his version of the '80s hit "Mickey" by serenading 24-year-old Solheim newcomer Danielle Kang. "Oh, Danielle," he sang, "you're so fine you blow my mind."
European captain Annika Sorenstam danced near the first tee with 90-year-old Shirley Spork, one of the founders of the LPGA. The Americans swayed to the music, too.
Austin Ernst, who wanted so badly to make the 2015 Solheim Cup, says the atmosphere on the first tee is her favorite part of the event. She watched that '15 Cup from her home in South Carolina, riveted by the U.S. comeback from a 10-6 deficit. Two years later, the 25-year-old made the roster.
"It sucks watching it," Ernst said. "But at the same time, seeing them come back and win like they did was so cool."
The crowd at the course was engaged all day. Fans gave a long ovation when Brittany Lang eagled a shot from 80 yards on the seventh hole; they chanted U-S-A each time the Americans closed in on another point.
Two women fans came to the course dressed as old-fashioned television sets. One of their screens said that the queen was devastated over a Europe defeat. Patti Marquis, who traveled to Des Moines from Colorado, found some of the materials for the costume in the trash at a campground. She glued cigarette butts and peanuts to the fake TV set, which was wrapped around her torso. The biggest problem, besides the heat, was trying to drink her beer.
Marquis, a golf pro, joked that she was going to give the Europeans lessons.
"They need my help," she said.
This is where you set all the egos aside and you become one. It's so difficult to get 12 women, 15 women including captains, to get on the same page. But this year, it's been falling together so easy and so comfortably that we're just having fun.American Lizette Salas on playing in the Solheim Cup
Earlier in the week, Wie waxed nostalgic about the first time she played in a team golf event, in the 2004 Curtis Cup. She was 14 years old then. She remembered staying up late with Paula Creamer, who is also on this year's Solheim team, and they played cards and watched TV shows about models.
"We decided to pull an all-nighter after we won," Wie said. "And we thought it was so cool. And those are the memories that I remember, not the shots that I hit."
The Americans are making some new memories this summer. They're more relaxed, and Team USA member Brittany Lincicome credits captain Juli Inkster for the stronger team chemistry. Inkster makes a point to tell them to enjoy the journey. For the second straight Solheim Cup, she created four-player pods, which meant they would practice together and spend a bulk of their time together.
Lincicome was grouped with Lang, who happens to be her best friend. They were in each other's wedding. They also have similar demeanors in that they're not technical on the course. Lincicome felt perfectly comfortable telling Lang to work and play harder, because it fired Lang up.
In the old system, before the pods, Lincicome said it was too hard to get to know 12 teammates all at once. But this way, with the pods, the players have established strong relationships.
Lincicome did not grow up surrounded by her peers. She was home-schooled but still managed to play team golf -- on two boys teams. The team dynamic is much different with boys, she says, and not as ideal.
"It's way cooler playing with the girls than the boys," she said.
And for one more day, the women will play together at the Solheim Cup, pushing each other.
"This is our biggest week every two years," Lincicome said earlier in the week. "It's a feeling that I wish I could let other people feel just one time, because it's really that amazing."