At the Solheim Cup, a new definition of “pod” casting

Sports

From left, Bubba Watson, Jessica Korda, Ally Ewing, Megan Khang, Morgan Pressel and Nelly Korda approach the seventh green during practice for the Solheim Cup golf tournament, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Pat Hurst’s job as U.S. Solheim Cup captain started long before she had any idea of what the team that will tee it up against Europe this weekend at Inverness might look like.

And it didn’t include a lick of golf.

The five-time Solheim Cup veteran and three-time vice-captain figures that she approached 20-25 potential players at some point over the last two years, asking them to take a personality test. The details on the nature of the questions are sketchy. The results themselves, too, for that matter.

Hurst, admittedly no expert in how to interpret them, even brought someone in to explain it all to the 12 women who will try to wrest the Cup back after a stunning loss at Gleneagles in 2019.

The goal, just as it was for 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger — who introduced the concept that three-time Solheim Cup captain Juli Inkster adopted in 2015 — was to divide the group into compatible four-player pods that would spend the week eating, practicing, playing — and hopefully winning — together.

“It’s all pretty consistent for them,” Hurst said Friday. “And I think that makes it a lot easier out there.”

It’s a concept the Americans have embraced, even if they’re not quite sure how they ended up in a given group. Some pods are obvious. Top-ranked Nelly Korda and older sister Jessica are in a pod with Ally Ewing and Megan Khang.

Finding the connective tissue in other pods is difficult, at least on the surface.

The quartet of Danielle Kang, Jennifer Kupcho, Lizette Salas and Austin Ernst was anointed the “Star” pod by vice captain Angela Stafford not because of their respective spots in the world’s top 30 but because their disparate test results would form a star if you drew a line from one to the next.

Then again, the four do have one thing in common.

“We’re all really good at golf,” said the recently engaged 24-year-old Kupcho, a Solheim Cup rookie.

Yet if that’s all it took to win the Solheim Cup, the Americans would have dominated the biennial competition since its inception in 1990. That hasn’t been the case. Inkster went to the “pod” system six years ago after the Europeans toppled talented U.S. squads in 2011 and 2013.

It’s worked for the most part. The Americans reclaimed the Cup in 2015 and rolled in 2017, though the winning streak stopped at Gleneagles when Suzann Pettersen’s gutty 7-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole finished off a stunning rally during singles that sparked a raucous victory celebration for the Europeans.

Hurst, a longtime Inkster lieutenant, saw no reason to go away from the approach. Yes, developing the chemistry and trust required to survive three pressure-packed days is an inexact science. The personality test is part of the process. So is the input Hurst and her assistants receive from the players themselves.

“It’s not cutthroat here like ‘You’re in this, deal with it,’” Salas said. “It’s more of like ‘This is what we came up with.’ They’re giving us their feedback, they want our feedback because at the end of the day we all want to be as comfortable and confident as possible.”

Each pod has its own nickname. Its own vice captain and its own vibe.

In addition to the “Star” pod, the Kordas are part of the “Chesnee” pod, a nod to vice captain Stacy Lewis’ 2-year-old daughter. Five-time Solheim Cup veteran Lexi Thompson, 20-year-old Yealimi Noh, Brittany Altomare and Mina Harigae have dubbed themselves “Biggie Smalls,” a tribute to their mix of long and short hitters and the bombs hit by vice- captain Michelle Wie West.

Thompson, ranked No. 4 on the LPGA Tour in driving, and Altomare, ranked 142nd, will team up against Europe’s Charley Hull and Emily Kristine Pedersen in the last of the foursome (alternate shot) groups on Saturday morning.

While the Americans partially rely on science in finding the right combinations, European captain Catriona Mathew takes a more organic approach in attempting to lead her team to just its second victory on U.S. soil.

Though Mathew stressed “there’s probably a lot more put into (the pairings) than you might think,” she also likes to see if any players just naturally gravitate toward each other.

It’s why four-time Solheim Cup veteran Mel Reid will find herself on the first tee Saturday morning with Leona Maguire, the first Irish woman to compete in the Cup.

The two hadn’t been around each other much until this week, something Reid attributed to the random nature of life on the LPGA Tour. If things go well, there’s a chance they may become inseparable by the time Sunday night rolls around.

Maybe they already are. Reid dubbed Maguire “Mags” during practice rounds and the breezy rapport between them quickly put Maguire at ease, freeing up her mind to focus on what’s important.

“I think there’s not very many egos on this team, which is really nice and really important,” Maguire said. “Everyone just wants to do what’s best for the team and whatever it’s going to take to bring that Cup back the right side of the Atlantic.”

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