By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – Even though women’s golf is dominated by Asian players who are not eligible for this week’s Solheim Cup, the event nonetheless remains a highlight of the calendar with two evenly-matched teams and a genuine rivalry nearly three decades in the making.
The 16th staging of a competition created in 1992 to showcase the sport’s best women in a format mirroring the Ryder Cup, and sponsored by Ping equipment company founder Karsten Solheim, starts at Gleneagles in Scotland on Friday.
Little could Solheim, who died in 2000, have envisaged all those years ago that come the 2019 event only three of the top 15 players in the women’s world rankings would even be eligible – with South Korean players occupying no less than seven of the top spots.
But that will not detract from the passion on display by both teams.
The United States have a stronger line-up top to bottom, headed by world number three Lexi Thompson, but are nonetheless only slight betting favorites, perhaps because their team includes five rookies.
European captain Catriona Matthew for her part will have three debutants — Anne Van Dam, Celine Boutier and Bronte Law — on a team with a combined 31 appearances, compared with 18 for Juli Inkster’s American line-up.
Both captains made controversial wildcard picks, Matthew in choosing 38-year-old Suzann Pettersen, who at the time of her selection had played only twice all season since returning to the LPGA Tour following childbirth.
But Matthew said in a conference call that she is backing Pettersen, a 15-times LPGA winner, to rise to the occasion.
“She’s been one of the best European players on the LPGA the last 10 or 15 years and a huge part of the Solheim Cup over that time,” said Matthew, an ambassador of Aberdeen Standard Investments, a Solheim Cup sponsor.
“She’s got that fire and passion for it. As a leader on the golf course, some of the younger ones and rookies really look up to her and respect her and I think it’s great to have that experience on the golf course.
“I had no doubt in my mind she would be an asset for the team so I broached the subject with her (of selection) and I think she was really quite delighted.”
While Matthew opted for experience, her counterpart Inkster put more weight on current form when she overlooked nine-times veteran Cristie Kerr, whose 21 career points is a U.S. team record.
Michelle Wie is not on the team either, as the former child prodigy was not available as she rehabilitates a debilitating wrist injury.
Inkster said she would have loved to have picked 41-year-old Kerr, but could not ignore the form of a player without a top-10 finish since May.
“She’s kind of struggled this year,” said Inkster.
“If I saw any light at the end of the tunnel, I probably would have picked her in a heartbeat.”
Inkster maintained she was not concerned at her team’s overall inexperience.
“We’re young but I think we’re good,” she said.
“We have a lot of players with a lot of heart and I really think they won’t be intimidated, which I like.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Christian Radnedge)