Solheim Cup takeaways: Leona Maguire’s bright future, American rookies on the rise

Leona Maguire celebrates with the Solheim Cup. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Matilda Castren brought foresight to her role in Team Europe’s 15-13 victory at the 2021 Solheim Cup at Inverness Club on Monday.

At the start of the week, the rookie and the first player from Finland to wear the blue and yellow, talked about Suzann Pettersen’s impact on the team this year. Pettersen, Team Europe’s vice captain and a nine-time Solheim Cup veteran, retired after making the winning putt at the 2019 Solheim.

“There’s a big photo of [Pettersen making the winning putt] in our locker room and, walking past it every day, I just look at it,” Castren said. “And I’m like, wow, that’s so cool and I hope that I can be there one day making that winning putt.”

She didn’t have to wait long. Castren’s 12-foot, right-to-left breaking putt on the 18th hole Monday helped the Europeans edge the Americans, notching the team’s 14th point and securing their second victory on American soil and fourth win in the last six Cups.

“It’s hard to put it into words right now. I think I’m still shaking,” Castren said. “I just knew I was looking at the board, and I knew it was going to be an important putt, and I wanted to make it.”

The win delivers Team Europe captain Catriona Matthew her second and final Solheim Cup win. The 52-year-old acknowledged in her victory press conference that someone else would take the reins for the 2023 Cup in Spain.

Here are five takeaways from Team Europe’s victory.

1. The Iron Irishwoman makes Solheim history

Leona Maguire finished 4-0-1 in her rookie debut for Team Europe. The 4 1/2 points she earned for her side were the most ever by a rookie in the Solheim Cup. Maguire joins Carin Koch in 2002 (4-0-1) and Caroline Hedwall in 2013 (5-0-0) as the only three players to go undefeated in five matches in Solheim history.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my Solheim career,” Maguire said. “I’m very fortunate to have had two great partners the last two days as well, and Mel [Reid] made me feel so comfortable out there and let me go do my thing. It just worked really well.”

Maguire set the tone in her first match, defeating the Korda sisters 1-up in foursomes, their best event as a duo. Then she teamed up with Georgia Hall to beat Yealimi Noh and Brittany Altomare 1-up in four-ball for a clean sweep on Saturday.

The largest margin of victory at Inverness this week was 5-and-4, achieved three times. Maguire played a part in two of those wins. Alongside Mel Reid, she dispatched world No. 1 Nelly Korda and Ally Ewing in Sunday foursomes, and then she handed Jennifer Kupcho her only loss of the weekend in an easy Labor Day singles victory. In Sunday four-ball, Maguire’s lone tie came against Lizette Salas and Kupcho, the two Americans with the best record at this year’s Cup.

Maguire, the longest-reigning world No. 1 amateur, will undoubtedly be on the Americans’ radar for the foreseeable future.

“She’s good,” U.S. captain Pat Hurst said Monday. “She’s going to be around for a long time. She’s the one we’re going to have to fear, like I said, for a long time. She played at Duke and she was good there, and I think this is only going to elevate her game even that much more.”

The 26-year-olds Maguire and Castren (3-1-0) carried the banner for Team Europe, forming a powerful tandem for many Solheim Cups to come.

2. Europe’s fast starts keep Solheim crowd quiet

A record number of fans poured through the gates at Inverness over the weekend, with 130,000 total attending the Solheim Cup. They lined up well before 6 a.m. and were ready to roar once they took their seats in the pavilion surrounding the first and 10th tees, encouraging Team USA to get off to a hot start with their enthusiasm.

Instead, the Americans stumbled out of the gate. Of the 28 matches played at the Solheim Cup, Team Europe led through five holes in 17 of them. The United States led in just five, trailing in eight consecutive matches through the five-hole mark from Saturday four-ball through Sunday foursomes.

“I think obviously, with the home crowd advantage this year, it’s been tough,” Matthew said Sunday. “I thought the crowd was great today, but as you can imagine, there were a lot of USA chants. We were just trying to quiet that.”

There’s never a clear victor in a match through five holes, but 16 of the 28 Cup matches played out to the 18th hole. The early mark is a barometer for how involved the fans will get: As more European flags were raised, the more subdued the fans became. That affected the significant edge the United States should have had, given that European fans couldn’t travel to Inverness due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthew’s goal of keeping the fans anxious with Europe’s strong play early may have been the difference.

“I wish we could have given them a little bit more to cheer about today and kind of help get the momentum in our favor,” assistant Team USA captain Stacy Lewis said. “But the fans killed it this week.”

The United States put itself in a difficult situation, having to climb out of early holes time and time again. The pressure Europe was able to maintain through the weekend contributed to their historic second win on American soil.

3) The top Americans struggle

Team Europe’s top-ranked player in the Rolex Rankings was Anna Nordqvist, currently 16th in the world after her victory at the AIG Women’s Open in late August. Nelly Korda (No. 1), Danielle Kang (No. 8), Lexi Thompson (No. 12), and Lizette Salas (No. 14) all ranked ahead of the Swede, with Jessica Korda (No. 18) sitting only two spots behind Nordqvist.

With nearly half of the roster in the top 20 of the world rankings, the Americans were the favorites on paper and their stars were expected to lead the way. Instead, only Salas (2-1-1) won more than half of the points available to her. Nelly Korda (2-2-0), Kang (1-3-0), Thompson (1-2-1), and Jessica Korda (1-2-0) combined to leave 8 1/2 points on the board.

If 1 1/2 of those points flipped, Team USA would have taken the Cup back. Instead, the top three Europeans in our power rankings combined to go 9-1-2, with Nordqvist, Castren and Maguire leading the charge.

4. American rookies provide a glimpse into the future

Twenty-year-old Yealimi Noh (2-1-0) and 24-year-old Jennifer Kupcho (2-1-1) shined in their rookie debuts for Team USA as two of three players to secure over half of the points available to them.

“I feel like the MVP of our team is this one right here,” Salas said, pointing to Kupcho after they split four-ball with Reid and Maguire on Sunday afternoon.

Kupcho and Salas found success as a duo, going 2-0-1 together and securing 2 1/2 of a possible three points. The 2019 Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion, Kupcho thrived on the pulsating energy from the fans in Toledo.

“It’s super fun just to be able to hear the crowd roar,” Kupcho said. “I think it’s super exciting for me. I mean, I love the sound of it.”

Noh lost her first match to Maguire and Hall alongside Brittany Altomare. Teamed up with 31-year-old Mina Harigae in four-ball, Noh then defeated Team Europe’s Celine Boutier and Sophia Popov 4-and-3. The Bay Area native took down Solheim veteran Reid by one in singles Sunday, surging to a 4-up lead through four holes en route to notching her second point for Team USA.

“I’m so happy to be a part of this team last minute,” Noh said Monday. “It’s just been so amazing that I keep wanting to play. I hope I play in a couple more Solheim Cups in my career.”

5) Bubba Watson raises the bar for supporting the women’s game

Two-time Masters champion and current PGA Tour player Bubba Watson initially intended to travel to Inverness to participate in the celebrity matchup on Thursday. Once signed up for that, he reached out to captain Hurst to see if he could expand his role beyond the celebrity cameo.

“Bubba called a couple weeks ago … wanting to help women’s golf out,” Hurst said last week. “He’s got a wife, he’s got a daughter, and he loves golf and, like I said, he just wants to support women’s golf.”

Watson’s first bridge to the American team was Nelly Korda. The 23-year-old credited the perspective Watson shared with her at the U.S. Open with the career-low 62 she carded at the Meijer LPGA Classic. The performance vaulted Korda to her second victory of the season a week before she won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and became the No. 1 player in the world.

Watson put in the work as a helper for Team USA, filling in divots, doling out advice from his four Ryder Cup appearances and listening in on his official “Helper” Team USA radio.

Watson punctuated his support in an interview on the first tee Saturday with Amanda Balonis.

“The world needs to see that the ladies have just as much talent, if not more than we do,” he said.