Long wait is over: Solheim Cup set to kick off, with veterans pacing Team USA in opening matches

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Toledo, Ohio — They've been waiting a long time for this.

Of course, it's been nearly two years since the last Solheim Cup — arguably the biggest tournament in women's golf — and four since the last on American soil. But the teams, here since last week, had an extra day of preparation, given the rare Saturday start to set up a Labor Day finish Monday.

It all gets started before 8 a.m. Saturday, in what's sure to be a raucous scene with stadium seating behind the split tees for Nos. 1 and 10.

Sisters Nelly Korda and Jessica Korda will pair up once again for Team USA in the Solheim Cup.

"Everyone in our side, we were kind of probably ready to go today," said Scotland's Catriona Matthew, Europe's captain for the second consecutive matches and a nine-time Solheim Cup member as a player.

"We were wishing this was Saturday," she said Friday afternoon, as her players warmed up 100 yards away on the range at historic Inverness Club.

The pairings for Saturday morning's first session of alternate shot are:

► 7:35 a.m.: Anna Nordqvist and Matilda Castren (Europe) vs. Danielle Kang and Austin Ernst (USA)

► 7:47 a.m.: Celine Boutier and Georgia Hall (Europe) vs. Ally Ewing and Megan Khang (USA)

► 7:59 a.m.: Mel Reid and Leona Maguire (Europe) vs. Nelly Korda and Jessica Korda (USA)

► 8:11 a.m.: Charley Hull and Emily Pedersen (Europe) vs. Lexi Thompson and Brittany Altomare (USA)

Notable among the pairings, officially announced during the opening ceremony at Promenade Park in downtown Toledo: None of the USA three rookies will play in the morning. Alternate shot had something to do that that.

More: Favored U.S. team out to reclaim Solheim Cup, defend home soil in Toledo

"Alternate shot for us is usually the more difficult format," said Pat Hurst, the American captain who played in five Solheim Cups. "So we want to put out people who are feeling a little bit more comfortable and not just kind of throw them out there kind of not knowing how they're going to do."

Alternate shot is the morning session Saturday and Sunday, with best-ball in the afternoons — followed by 12 singles matches Monday to close the event.

Afternoon pairings Saturday and Sunday will be announced near the conclusion of the morning matches.

The other highlight of the pairings: The Korda sisters are back at it as teammates, after combining to go 6-0-2 at Gleneagles in Scotland two years ago. It was a no-brainer to pair them, and don't expect that to change throughout the week. Nelly is the top-ranked player in the world and a three-time winner in 2021, including the Meijer LPGA Classic in Grand Rapids. Jessica is ranked 18th in the world.

Team USA's Austin Ernst, left, and Jennifer Kupcho have been in the same pod for the Solheim Cup.

Sticking with pods

The Americans are continuing to take a page out of Paul Azinger's book.

For the 2008 Ryder Cup, Azinger installed what was called the pod system. He split the 12 players into groups of four, the same four players practicing with each other, eating with each other, doing media with each other, just being around each other all week. He then took his pairings from those pods.

It led to a 2008 victory; the USA went away from it and lost the next three. Davis Love III brought it back in 2016, and the USA won.

The USA Solheim Cup team has used the pods for the last several events.

More: Korda sisters headline Solheim Cup in Toledo; meet Team USA, Team Europe

If nothing else, it creates a level of comfort for what is a pressure-packed week.

"The nice thing about the pods is you kind of hang out with the same people all week on the golf course and you really get a feel for how other people play and how the people that you're going to play with play," said Ernst, who is in a pod with Kang, Jennifer Kupcho and Lizette Salas.

"You kind of know what makes them tick."

The pod system came, some believe, after the disastrous 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, where captain Hal Sutton decided, unbelievably, to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who weren't the best of friends at the time. The USA got smoked by Europe in Bloomfield Township.

Helping hand

Southern boy Bubba Watson is taking a liking to the Midwest.

He's become an ambassador, of sorts, for the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, raising tens of thousands of dollars for local charities. And this week, he's serving as an unofficial adviser for Team USA. He asked Hurst if he could help, and the team gladly welcomed him.

He's been on the course, working with players, particularly the short game. He was free this week, not qualifying for the PGA Tour's Tour Championship.

"I was totally a fangirl when I saw him," Salas said. "He was wearing a mask and I kind of recognized his walk, and I go, 'That's Bubba.'

"To have a Masters champion come … that just speaks volumes."

Watson is a two-time Masters champion, and it's at Augusta where he congratulates the winner of the new Augusta Women's Amateur.

Kupcho, while a senior at Wake Forest, won the inaugural event in 2019.

They reconnected this week.

"He was just sitting at the table in the team room, I walked up to the table, and he goes, 'Hey, you know, I was there when you won, right?'" Kupcho said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I shook your hand.' Why would I not remember that? Like, seriously?"

Said Kang: "It's like Phil Mickelson coming up to you saying, 'Hey, my name is Phil.' You're like, 'I know.'"

Bubba Watson talks with USA's Danielle Kang during a practice round ahead of the Solheim Cup.

Home crowd

This is considered one of the strongest United States teams in years. But Europe believes its collection of talent is supreme, too.

"It's the strongest one we've had," said Reid, of the United Kingdom.

Europe trails, 10-6, in the all-time series, but actually won the last time out, in Scotland. It's only won once on American soil, and doing so this week could be more difficult than ever, given so few European fans could make the trip because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. In a typical Solheim Cup in the United States, Europe draws more than 10,000 fans.

It's always a red-white-and-blue show when held in the USA, but it should be even more lopsided this year.

"Yeah," said Reid, "we're going to have a few rowdy fans, I think."

That's not all bad from at least one European player's perspective.

"I actually quite like being the underdog," Hull said. "I enjoy that. I kind of bounce off that more."

More than 100,000 fans are expected to attend the three competition days.

Chips & divots

► The LPGA, which runs the Solheim Cup, switched Nos. 9 and 18 this week — so the ninth hole will now be the 358-yard par 4 that serves as the membership's finishing hole, and the 18th hole will be the 367-yard par-4 dogleg to the right that typically is No. 9.

► This marks the second time many of these players have played here in the last two years. In restarting after COVID-19 in 2020, the LPGA Tour added the Drive On Championship to the schedule, at Inverness. The course will play different, though. It was colder then; it will play firmer now.

► There will be three Solheim Cups in the next four years. The next one is in Spain in 2023, then the tournament will move to even years starting in 2024 to get off the same year as the Ryder Cup. Last year's Ryder Cup was postponed because of the pandemic, and is later this month in Wisconsin.

► Europe won the Junior Solheim Cup, held at nearby Sylvania Country Club. The Solheim Cup decided to carry on with the tradition despite the pandemic; the Ryder Cup canceled its junior event for 2021.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

Solheim Cup

When: Saturday-Monday

Where: Inverness Club, Toledo

TV: Saturday — 7:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Golf Channel; 12:30-2:30, NBC; 2:30-6, Golf Channel. Sunday — 7 a.m.-noon, Golf Channel; 12-1:30, NBC; 1:30-5:30, Golf Channel. Monday — Noon-6, Golf Channel

Defending champion: Europe