If there was ever an advertisement for golf participation it was the Solheim Cup in Ohio last week.
While the elite men were playing for untold riches in the PGA Tour finale, Europe and USA battled it out for glory in an epic contest that surely had male and female golfers all over the UK reaching for their golf bags this weekend.
Watched by a hugely partisan 130,000 crowd over the three days, the European team performed golfing heroics under the watchful eye of captain Catriona Matthew to produce a performance that will live long in the memory.
Matthew became the first European captain to win two Solheim Cups and her solid, unassuming performance deserves all the recognition it gets.
But the standout player of the match was captain’s pick 26-year-old Leona Maguire from Ireland who scored four and half points from a possible five in one of the most remarkable debuts in golf history.
Maguire, whose twin sister Lisa is also a pro golfer, was also the first Irish woman to play in a Solheim Cup and afterwards said: “I don’t think you could have dreamed up something like this. It has been a very special week. We were definitely the underdogs. To get the win is very, very special.
“I wasn’t just coming here to take part. I wanted to do something, I was here for a reason. Catriona [Matthew] and the vice-captains put a lot of trust in me, using me in all five matches and I wanted to win every single point I could. It has been amazing.”
Maguire, unlike many of her contemporaries, waited a while before turning professional. The County Cavan player was determined to complete her degree at Duke University in North Carolina first and remained an amateur until 2018. But in that time she was the world’s top-ranked female amateur for an astonishing, record-breaking 135 weeks.
“I had a plan,” Maguire told reporters earlier this week. “My team around me had a plan. It was always important to me to get my education. I had a fantastic four years at Duke.
“I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am now without the choices I have made. Everything has been done meticulously, I have worked my way through every level, ticked every box and I think I stepped up another level this week. I have stuck to my guns, done everything I possibly can and it’s nice to be in this position now.”
“I won’t be any different after this. I will keep going with the plan that I have. It has been working pretty well so far. I think I proved out there that I can compete with the best players in the world.”
Maguire’s partnership with Mel Reid was an inspired move by captain Matthew as they proved an unbeatable force in both of their foursomes matches and a fourballs on Saturday where Reid’s sensational 18th hole birdie secured the half that gave Europe what ultimately proved a decisive two-point lead.
“We didn’t know each other before this. I don’t think she wanted to play with me to be honest,” Reid laughed afterwards. “She’s an unbelievable player, I really hope that the world now sees how good she is. Her new nickname is ‘Lion’, I mean she’s so impressive and honestly it was an honour to play with her.”
But it was the thrilling nature of this victory with no fewer than 16 of the 28 matches going to the final green in Ohio, which will have got people out on the fairways and greens again this week.
“I can’t tell you enough, it is one of the best spectacles in sport whether male or female,” Reid said. “The Solheim Cup brings out the best in everybody that plays. I hope that lots of people follow golf now because of the display we’ve put on over the last few days.”
But it also wouldn’t have been the Solheim Cup – and some say it wouldn’t have been golf – without some strange rule interfering with play and threatening to overshadow the action.
Europe won day one by an incredible 51/2-21/2 at the Inverness Club but the lead would have been more were it not for the controversy on the 13th green in the top match of the afternoon fourballs.
With the contest tied, world No 1 Nelly Korda had a 20-footer for an eagle to go one-up. Her putt didn’t go in, but finished tantalisingly close to the hole. It was at that point when her opponent Madelene Sagstrom walked up and picked up her ball before throwing it back to Korda with everyone thinking the hole was halved in four.
Everyone that was but the match referee who ruled that the ball was overhanging the hole and that Korda had the right to walk up to the ball herself and then wait 10 seconds to see if it toppled in.
“That was too soon,” Jones told Sagstrom, as she ruled that the hole was to go to the Americans instead.
Sagstrom could not believe it, nor could millions of TV viewers who could all clearly see that the ball was not about to drop in, no matter how long they waited.
But shortly afterwards an official statement was released saying: “The chief referee, match referee, observer and TV observer all deemed that Nelly Korda’s third shot on No. 13 was overhanging the hole and was picked up by her opponent before the waiting time had ended. Therefore, her third stroke was treated as holed.”
Korda and her partner Ally Ewing beat Sagstrom and Dane Nanna Koerstz Madsen by a hole in the end – and the difference was that dubious verdict.
“It was definitely awkward,” Korda said afterwards. “You don’t want to win a hole like that.”
However Sagstrom was of the view that Korda’s caddy spoke to the rules official about the incident and got them to have a look at it.
“I believe in integrity and the honour of the game of golf, and I would never pick up a putt that had a chance to go in,” she said. “I personally don’t agree with the decision with the ball being on the edge, but I didn’t follow the 10-second rule, so it sucks right now because I feel like I let my team down”.
Her partner Koertz Madsen said: “It was just not fun for Madelene to be in that position. I think she felt bad, and she really shouldn’t. Golf shouldn’t go down to a putt that would never have gone in. She didn’t do anything. If they want to win on something like that, that’s on them.”
Thomas Bjorn, Sagstrom’s countryman and the 2018 Ryder Cup captain, added his voice to the debate: “Let’s be clear, as a player you know instantly if the ball has a chance of dropping. The American players made no claim so this is solely on the referees. Not clear enough for me for the ref to make that decision.”
The referee American Missy Jones is a much-respected and experienced official who clearly thought it was clear that the ball was overhanging. And, with Rule 13.3b stating: “If the opponent in match play deliberately lifts or moves the player’s ball overhanging the hole before the waiting time has ended, the player’s ball is treated as holed with the previous stroke,” she felt she had done the right thing and was supported by the other tournament officials.
But, as Bjorn added: “Do rules officials in golf realise how unbelievably stupid they make our game look?”
Ultimately, it didn’t make the difference and Europe emerged triumphant and that will be the story that is remembered – but when golf has the ability to make such compelling drama, it seems such a shame that its rules and those that are charged with implementing them have the ability to create a drama of their own.