Juli Inkster is already a legend in the world of women’s golf and now she’s preparing for her third consecutive Solheim Cup captaincy of the US side.
By Lewine Mair
At the end of October, Juli Inkster, who will captain the American Solheim Cup side at Gleneagles next September, visited the famous Scottish resort with Pat Hurst, a long-time friend and one of her vice-captains.
Though she and Hurst did not play the match course, they took a close look at where the US team, and then the players’ families and friends, would all be staying, while they also got to grips with the whereabouts of their team room and the different practice facilities. Inkster liked what she was seeing - and not least because everything was at its autumnal best. So much so that you wondered how she and Hurst could have resisted fitting in a quick 18 holes.
“No time for that,” laughed Juli, who will be serving as captain for the third time in a row while Catriona Matthew will be making her debut at the helm of the European team.
One of the first questions we put to the now 58-year-old American was whether or not she was in regular touch with Michelle Wie who, only a week before we met, had had an operation on what had been diagnosed as osteo-arthritis in her right hand.
“Foursomes are foreign to my girls. We will be practising the format a lot over the practice days at Gleneagles”
The news was good. The operation, said Juli, had been a total success, with the player having been much encouraged at hearing that there was a broken bone in the mix - and that that could have had as much to do with her problems as anything else. “Michelle,” said Juli, “has got all winter to heal - and the hope is that she’ll be fit in time for the Solheim. She’s a great team player.”
Would Inkster call upon her as a vice-captain if she was not ready?
Inkster was not entirely sure that she would. “I’ve sort of got my vice-captains sorted out, but if she wanted to come along, it would be great to have her here. Michelle’s going to make a good captain one day, that’s for sure. She knows how to encourage younger players and she’s brilliant when it comes to sharing her thoughts.”
Did it surprise her that Tiger Woods, Michelle’s opposite number in terms of fame, hadn’t turned out to be better than he was at the Ryder Cup? Inkster felt that it was not fair to look too closely at the Tiger who played at Golf National a few months ago. “He seemed tired that week and he wasn’t pumping up his playing companions as he should have done or, at least, I felt he should have done.
“These matches are never about you but “What can I do to help my team, which is what you get from Michelle.” (She went on to cite how Wie, when she was not playing well, would always be prepared to stand down to let someone else have a turn.
It’s quite something to be a Solheim Cup captain for three times in a row and in Inkster’s case, such an honour speaks volumes for her reputation in the realm of match play.
She says that she inherited her competitiveness from her father, a professional baseball player. Her two brothers, meantime, did not play as much of a role as you might have thought in that they were never greatly interested in doing battle with their ultra-talented sister.
Apart from having the art of match play in her genes, Inkster has probably picked up as much as any American about the intricacies of fourballs and foursomes, what with one Curtis Cup under her belt and nine Solheims as a player.
“Foursomes in particular” she said, “are foreign to my girls. As happened in 2015 and 2017, we will be practising the format a lot over the practice days at Gleneagles. They require such a different mentality. You can either get off on the right foot or you can start treading on each other’s toes."
“It’s all a matter of getting comfortable, of not worrying as to what your partner is thinking if you hit a bad shot.”
“The other thing you have to get across is that they could go four or five holes without bringing out one or other of their drivers or putters. Especially in the case of the putter, it’s not ideal to be asked to hole a five or six-footer for a first time when you’re already a third of the way round.”
Since the main altercation in the match of 2015 had to do with the fourballs rather than foursomes, it made sense to ask Inkster if there was anything she had learned from that dark day when Suzann Pettersen claimed the 17th hole on behalf of herself and Charley Hull. To recap, America’s Alison Lee had snatched up her ball instead of holing the little putt she needed for the half. (She said she thought she had heard someone saying, ‘That’s good!’ when even her partner, Brittany Lincicome, seemed to be suggesting that no-one had said anything.)
Pettersen’s stance left her and Charley Hull one up going down the last on their way to a two-hole victory. It was a result which not only contributed to the Europeans going into the singles series with a 10-6 lead but to Inkster whipping her troops up into an unanswerable frenzy of indignation. Though Pettersen’s teammates recognised that the Swede had been well within her rights to claim the hole, especially since Lee was alleged to have made the same mistake on a couple of earlier occasions, they were sorely embarrassed and fell like the proverbial pack of cards in the remaining singles series. In no time at all, that 10-6 advantage turned into a 131⁄2-141⁄2 loss.
“I was walking with that match but was too far away to hear what was being said,” recalled Juli. “I did as everyone else in heading towards the 18th when suddenly everything stopped. And that was when I heard that Suzann had claimed the 17th. Personally, I thought she would have done better to see the incident as a good teaching moment, especially when her side was well ahead at the time. She could have waited till they were walking down the 18th and said, ‘I know you picked up your ball but we didn’t say that the putt was good.’
“I think we all learned from what happened,” she continued.“When it came to the match at Des Moines, two years later,” she continued, “Annika (Sorenstam) and I got together and agreed that there would be no controversies over the week. Thankfully, the teams got along beautifully and some great golf was played, with Lexi Thompson and Anna Nordqvist showing how it was done in an amazing top singles.”
Though the promotional material for the match of 2019 - it shows Inkster and Matthew in face-off mode - hardly suggests that everything will be sweetness and light at Gleneagles, most are agreed that the match is going to be an out-and-out cracker.
Alan Grant, the Senior Golf Manager at Event Scotland, said that there has been any amount of interest from America and the Continent - and that he has had 11 different tour operators busy on the event for months. “What’s happening,” he said, “is that people are coming over for two weeks rather than just the one. Scotland has that pull. It’s not just the promise of some thrilling golf but the history of the country and the scenery...
Presumably, people have been tactful enough not to mention what happened in 1992 when the Americans anticipated a relatively easy win over the home side before taking off with their families on the holiday of a lifetime in the Highlands.
As it turned out, the result could not have come as more of an all-round surprise as the Europeans messed up the visitors’ plans by winning to the tune of 111⁄2 points to 61⁄2.
It all Leads to This Moment
The Solheim Cup is the pinnacle of women’s golf and the 16th edition of the biennial match at Gleneagles promises to be a highlight on the 2019 golf calendar.
A week of golf (9-15 September) will begin with the PING Junior Solheim Cup with the participants made to feel an important part of the main event. This under 18 event will be showcased as never before as Scotland seeks to ensure that this is the most family orientated and inclusive Solheim Cup ever staged.
Mickey Walker OBE, Captain of the European Solheim Cup from 1990 to 1996, will captain the 2019 European Junior team. This is a match that Europe last won in 2007, so there is no end of motivation to win back the trophy next year. Likewise, Catriona Matthew will hope to lead Europe to victory and regain the trophy last won in 2013 at Colorado Golf Club.
For the main event, tickets begin at £40 for adults on tournament days with season tickets available for £120. These can be purchased either through the website, SolheimCup2019.com, or authorised tour operators.
Photography by Getty Images