Catriona Matthew became the first European to captain back-to-back Solheim Cup wins as Team Europe held on for a thrilling 15-13 triumph on American soil
It’s one thing to guide a team to victory in your home country in front of a feverish crowd, but to take up the mantle for a second time and do what no other captain has done before with tens of thousands rooting against you, that’s something else entirely.
Quite rightly, the players deserve immense praise for the way they handled galleries bereft of European support en route to a thrilling 15-13 triumph. The reception was frosty at times, but that didn’t stop Matthew’s charges from putting their stamp all over this year’s Solheim Cup.
Charley Hull, who went 2-2-0 for the contest, described it best, saying: “Some of the cheers could’ve been for halves, but there were so many that you thought, ‘we must be losing here.’
“Then you look at the board.”
Such an atmosphere was to be expected, of course, and that only serves to highlight the brilliance of Matthew’s leadership.
Beany’s magic touch is perhaps exemplified by the rookie who stole the show in Ohio. Leona Maguire became the first women from Ireland to compete in the biennial event when she teed it up in the Saturday morning foursomes, and she couldn’t have been a better fit for the occasion.
Pairing the 26-year-old from County Cavan with Mel Reid turned out to be a masterstroke as the two fed off each other superbly in taking the scalp of the Korda sisters as Europe racked up an early three-point lead.
And whether it was always the plan to throw Maguire straight back in for the afternoon fourballs and then give her a clean sweep of matches, we’ll never know, but it would’ve been a bold strategy at the outset.
However, recognising Maguire’s knack for matchplay, as well as her relentless playing style and ability to thrive under pressure, Matthew put her absolute faith in the talismanic figure. And it was duly rewarded as Maguire won four and half points from five, a record for a rookie in this event.
Most in a similar position would’ve opted to rest the 26-year-old, for one round of matches at least, but Matthew has now unearthed a potential superstar for Team Europe.
“It’s been an honour to represent Europe and the trust that Beany and all the captains had in me has been incredible,” Maguire said moments after the anchor match finished.
“Beany, phenomenal. The girls have talked about Gleneagles and to get to witness it first-hand, she knew exactly what she was doing, she was calm, cool, collected and the biggest thing was she instilled so much confidence in the whole team.
“She trusted us 100 per cent and just let us do our thing. She knew what she was doing with the pairings and the singles order. Two wins out of two for her, it doesn’t get much better.”
As for Maguire’s fellow debutants, Nanna Koerstz Madsen and Matilda Castren, their stellar records and crucial middle-of-the-order single’s points are further evidence of a captain in control.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that it all came easy. As the saying has gone this week, it wouldn’t be a Solheim Cup without some controversy, and it arrived as early as day one when the opening encounter of the Saturday fourballs was thrust into the limelight.
Tied on the 13th green, World No. 1 Nelly Korda came within a whisker of giving her side a slender advantage to take into the final five. Her eagle attempt sat on the edge of the hole and Madelene Sagstrom threw it back to her in concession – an act that would subsequently be penalised as per rule 13.3b.
The Europeans lost the hole and went on to lose the match on the final green, with Sagstrom visibly upset in the aftermath.
Such an experience can be tough to recover from. It was the Swede’s first outing of the 2021 edition, and although she wasn’t a rookie, making just her second appearance, she was far from a veteran.
Captain Matthew’s qualities as a leader were once again crucial in handling the situation to perfection.
“I didn’t have the best start to the week but I was really happy Catriona decided to put me out first thing Sunday morning, just showing that she believes in me, showing that the team has got my back, so that was really nice,” Sagstrom said after beating Ally Ewing 3&2 in the second singles match.
“She [Matthew] just has so much belief in us. She’s said that from day one. It’s such a great atmosphere to be around, and it just really fuels both my confidence and that I believe in myself so much, the fact that she believes in us.”
To a player, this was the message emanating from a European team considered rank outsiders before a ball had even been struck.
But so it was at Inverness Golf Club, just as it was at Gleneagles two years ago, that America’s superstar roster had no answer for Matthew’s understated yet effective style.
As Maguire alluded to, she knew exactly how to get the most out of her players, from young to old(ish), rookie to veteran. Even the image of the Loch Ness monster printed on the bottom of the bags added something extra.
“I think it’s even sweeter as a captain actually,” Matthew said of winning. “It’s certainly more nerve-racking watching. It’s all down to the team really, it’s if they play well, so all hats off to them.
“My team have been so fantastic all week. I really don’t do a whole lot. They just go out there and they win the points for us.
“One person doesn’t win it, we needed all 12 of them, so just congratulations to the whole team,” was Matthew’s typically humble message at the closing ceremony.
But there’s no hiding from the record books, which will read forever more that she was the first European captain to lead the team to back-to-back Solheim Cup successes.
If it does prove to be Matthew’s final act as captain, as appears the case, the biggest question now is who will fill the huge hole left by her departure?