Back to back; Europe rides rookies to Solheim Cup win

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Europe's Leona Maguire celebrates with her sister Lisa after defeating United States' Jennifer Kupcho on the 15th hole during the singles matches at the Solheim Cup golf tournament, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

TOLEDO, Ohio – Matilda Castren glanced at the rapidly expanding sea of red on the videoboard next to the 18th green, took a deep breath and tried to block everything out.

Her long road to the Solheim Cup. Europe's rapidly dwindling lead over the host Americans. A record crowd filled with unfamiliar faces after COVID-19 travel restrictions basically forced the visitors to go it alone at breezy, sun-splashed Inverness.

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The 26-year-old knew the 10-footer for par would move right to left. She just needed to get the speed right. When it poured into the heart to give her a 1 up win over Lizette Salas and assure Europe of a second straight Solheim Cup victory, there was no explosion of joy. Just a fist pump and perhaps a little shake of the head.

“It’s just crazy, crazy,” said Castren, who needed to win a tournament in her native Finland in July to become eligible to make the 12-woman team. “I can’t believe I made that putt.”

Castren might be the only one.

Over the course of three days, the Europeans seemed to make everything that mattered, serving notice in a 15-13 victory that the notion of home-course advantage in the biennial event between the longtime rivals no longer exists. Perhaps Europe's perception as the perennial underdog too.

Europe never trailed at any point in northwest Ohio while beating the Americans for the fourth time in their last six meetings.

“Hands down, I think this is the best team Europe has ever had,” seven-time Solheim Cup veteran Anna Nordqvist said.

The Europeans certainly played like it, guided by the leadership of two-time captain Catriona Matthews — who said she will step aside when the event shifts to Spain in 2023 — and the brilliance of rookie Leona Maguire.

The 26-year-old former Duke standout, the first Irish woman to make a Solheim team, went unbeaten (4-0-1) while being the only player on either side to participate in all five sessions.

Going out third in singles, Maguire using an eagle and three birdies on the front nine on her way to dispatching Jennifer Kupcho 5-and-4 to give Europe the first of five points needed to hold onto the Cup.

Even as her teammates chanted “MVP!” during the giddy aftermath, the reserved Maguire did her best to disappear into the background. An Irish flag draped over her shoulders, Maguire only truly relaxed when reunited with identical twin sister Lisa, one of the few blue-and-white clad supporters on the grounds.

“Hopefully the whole world now sees how good she is,” said Mel Reid, who paired with Maguire three times over the weekend to help Europe take a 9-7 lead into the singles matches.

The Americans certainly do.

U.S. captain Pat Hurst stuck with the “pod” system that had worked so well for former captain Juli Inkster. It might be time to revisit the approach after Europe jumped to a 3 1/2-1/2 point advantage after the opening alternate-shot session on Saturday morning and held firm the rest of the way.

“I had a plan and I stuck to it,” Hurst said. “I’m pretty consistent. Everyone knew what we were going to do and I wasn’t going to go away from that, and I didn’t.”

There were bright spots for the U.S. on Monday, namely from world No. 1 Nelly Korda and older sister Jessica. The two struggled over the weekend but Nelly Korda rallied for a 1-up win over Georgia Hall while Jessica surged past Charley Hull 3-and-1.

It just wasn't enough and an afternoon when most of the roars from the crowd were for lengthy par putts that halved holes for the Americans instead of winning them. Not even a highly partisan crowd that included a rapping two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson (yes, really) could give the U.S. the momentum it needed to close the gap.

Europe earned three of the first four points available in singles to push the U.S. to the brink. The Americans rallied briefly and for a moment appeared to have an outside chance at squeezing out the 7 1/2 points required to finish off a stunning comeback.

They couldn't quite get there, symbolic of an extraordinarily tight event where 16 of 28 matches reached the 18th green.

Austin Ernst saw her a downhill 8-foot birdie putt on 18 that would have won her match against Nanna Koerstz Madsen slide left, letting Europe escape with a half-point to bring its team total to 13. Salas had a chance to even her match with Castren on the 17th, only to shove her 6-foot birdie putt past the hole.

When Salas couldn’t convert a 20-foot uphill birdie putt on the 18th and Castren recovered from a plugged approach shot in the bunker to salvage par with a putt that will live on in Solheim Cup lore, Europe had found a way to turn the U.S. away once again.

Reid pointed to the play of Cup rookies like Castren and Maguire, both LPGA members, as proof of how far Europe has come since the Cup's inception in 1990. There was a time not so long ago when Europe would show up at the course intimidated by the U.S.’s star power and experience.

No more.

“They weren’t scared,” Reid said of Castren and Maguire, who went a combined 7-1-1. “They’re completely fearless.”

Champions too.


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