Although the LPGA, and for that matter the men’s European Tour, started their 2021 seasons in January, the Ladies European Tour is only teeing up for their first event of the year on Thursday. The tournament in question is the Investec South African Women’s Open at Westlake Golf Club in Cape Town. Right on cue, Dame Laura Davies has advice for LET players hoping to make Catriona Matthew’s Solheim Cup side in September.
“They need to keep their chins up,” said Davies, one of Matthew’s vice-captains. “I can understand if they are feeling under pressure to begin with a couple of wins, but the clever ones won’t make that mistake. They’ll be looking for a run of consistency.”
It is because of the LET’s late start that selection for the European team is different this year. Matthew, who captained the winning side at Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2019, will decide on six picks rather than the usual four, while the team also will include the four leading Europeans on the LPGA Tour along with the two leaders on the LET money list.
“The LET girls need to understand just how good they are,” said Davies. “They’re playing to a higher standard than ever before and any one of them is capable of stringing a run of good results together. They’ve all got a chance, especially with the format as it is. Of course, it’s going to be difficult, but things are difficult for everyone at the moment.”
For an example of just how difficult, listen to two-time LET winner Felicity Johnson. She was planning to travel to Cape Town until she realised the implications. Because of COVID-19 regulations, she discovered she would not be allowed to keep practising for a further week in South Africa before moving on to the Ladies Italian Open. Nor could she fly home in time to quarantine before flying out to Golf Club Margara, an hour’s drive west of Turin. Hence the reason she pulled out of South Africa, and others were thinking of following suit.
“It’s just one more example of how we’ve got to be aware of everything,” Johnson said. “Laura, as always, is absolutely right. We’ve got to accept how things are. We’ve got tournaments and we’ve got a chance to make the team. What’s more, there’s always someone who comes out of nowhere to have a stellar season.”
For a prime example of that, what of Sophia Popov? Having failed to acquire an LPGA card for last year, the German player was, so to speak, of no fixed abode when she got a start in the LPGA’s Marathon Classic around the time she was caddying for friend Anne van Dam.
Popov’s top 10-finish in the Marathon event paved the way for her place in the AIG Women’s Open at Troon and, of course, her fairytale major championship victory.
Matthew, in her endeavours to keep tabs on Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic, already has attended the ANA Inspiration, the first major of 2021. There, one of her first moves was a get-to-know-you chat with Popov. She also watched her in action, along with other team “possibles” such as Denmark’s Nanna Koerstz Madsen, who finished joint third in the ANA, and Charley Hull and Mel Reid of England. Ireland’s Leona Maguire, England’s Georgia Hall and Denmark’s Emily Pedersen, the winner of last year’s Race to the Costa del Sol, were three more on her radar.
“Overall, it’s looking very positive for the Europeans,” she said. “There were a lot of good performances.”
“I’ll be looking at new players, for sure, and hoping that they can break through to the next level.”
Currently at home in North Berwick, Scotland, the captain is collecting data on would-be players wherever they might be: “I’m looking for consistency of play up until and through the AIG Women's Open, past records, greens in regulation stats and putting stats.”
In 2019, long before Matthew announced her wild-card picks, she made plain she would be looking for someone who had what it would take to hole putts under pressure. She chose Suzann Pettersen and, although the Norwegian had hardly touched a club all year, she came up with the goods, holing that all-important 7-foot winning putt on Gleneagles’s home green.
At the same time, Matthew is thinking about how this player and that will “fit” in a team situation and is considering possible pairings.
She will be at the Scandinavian Mixed, the fourth tournament on the LET schedule, with a view to doing the double of playing and studying form. With three professionals combining with one amateur that week, she plans to take advantage of the format to play alongside Solheim Cup hopefuls.
“I’ll be looking at new players, for sure, and hoping that they can break through to the next level,” she added.
After returning to America for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship from 24-27 June, including a reconnaissance visit to Solheim Cup venue the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, she will fly home before setting out for her first US Senior Women’s Open. The Scot will make her debut at Brooklawn Country Club in Connecticut from 29 July-1 August.
That’s one week when the captain won’t be on the lookout for fresh talent. However, what chance does she have of suppressing Solheim Cup thoughts as she tries to concentrate on her own game?
Top: Catriona Matthew (left) and Dame Laura Davies each offered advice to those LET players hoping to make Europe's Solheim Cup team.