News & Opinion

Golf Channel sticks with dazzling match

Given the lopsided score from the night before, Sunday could have been a dreary day for the concept of international team golf, if not another knock on match play, a format that’s never been particularly fan- or television-friendly in the States.

Regardless of how well the U.S. and European teams had played over the first two days of the Solheim Cup, the tension and theatrics seemed destined for flat-line levels on Day 3.

Instead, beginning with the first hole of the first singles match of the 15th Solheim Cup, the play proved to be a ringing endorsement for the event and its format (scores: http://bit.ly/1zkYSEX).

Thanks to a wily command decision by Golf Channel, which elected to stick with every shot down the stretch in the incomprehensibly good leadoff match between American Lexi Thompson and Swede Anna Nordqvist, the preordained final outcome barely mattered.

Among the 12 singles matches, Thompson and Nordqvist were, well, singularly brilliant, finishing in a draw that went down to the last shot. Better still, Golf Channel recorded every wild moment, nervous twitch and momentum switch down the stretch.

After losing a 4-up lead at the turn, Nordqvist laced a clutch 8-iron shot to within 2 feet on the last hole and secured a halved point from Thompson, who played a seven-hole stretch of the back nine in 8 under, including two eagles.

“Maybe, just maybe, fitting in the end,” Golf Channel’s Terry Gannon said. “Because Anna Nordqvist did not deserve to lose based on how she played.”

The broadcast crew didn’t miss a shot, either, starting with Thompson’s wretched early putting and iron play. The American star missed a 30-inch putt for birdie on the first green, shanked a wedge on the second and half-shanked a 9-iron on the third.

U.S. captain Juli Inkster appeared in the fourth fairway to console Thompson. With Inkster’s arm around her in the fairway, Thompson looked to be near tears after falling 3 down in as many holes. Golf Channel’s Grant Boone reported Inkster’s message essentially was, “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

While the team outcome effectively was preordained with the Yanks’ 10½-5½ lead after two days, the opening singles match Sunday was anything but a fait accompli. After making the turn with a 4-up lead, Nordqvist was nearly run over.

“I kinda got a little shaky in the middle there,” Nordqvist told Golf Channel afterward, “watching her make birdies and eagles from everywhere.”

That was no embellishment. Nordqvist, who has been battling mononucleosis for much of the summer, rightly thought the match would end quickly for her.

Out of nowhere, Thompson birdied the 10th and then holed an approach shot from 112 yards on the par-5 11th for eagle to pare Nordqvist’s lead to 2 up. Nordqvist even gave Thompson a sporting high-five in the fairway after the shot fell. Turns out, it was merely prelude.

After Thompson added a birdie on the 13th, both players knocked their approaches at the par-5 15th onto the green in two. For those who thought the partisan crowd roared when Thompson holed her approach four holes earlier, the eruption was even louder when she ran in a 35-footer for another eagle to square the match. Moreover, with Thompson leading the comeback, the Yanks had recovered from a slow start to claim the lead in six matches at the moment. 

“Absolutely remarkable and a turnaround that has a [Jordan] Spieth-like essence to it,” Gannon said after Thompson’s second eagle lit up the gallery.

Neither player was finished. All square with three to play, Thompson birdied the 16th from 12 feet to take an improbable 1-up lead.

“This match clearly sets the trend for the rest of the day,” Golf Channel’s Tom Abbott said. “When Nordqvist was 4 up, word would have filtered through to the rest of the team members that Nordqvist was playing so well and doing exactly what she needed to do in that first match out. But now, that story will have changed completely.”

Despite the 11 other matches, Golf Channel wisely stayed glued to the Thompson-Nordqvist details. Thompson missed a 6-footer that would have closed out the match on the 17th, giving Nordqvist the chance to forge some stoic, heroic memories of her own.

Gannon: “The golf gods just didn’t want this one to end.”

With Thompson on the 18th green and facing a 25-footer, Nordqvist laced a seemingly laser-guided 8-iron to within 2 feet that Thompson quickly conceded for a birdie. When Thompson’s birdie effort failed to drop moments later, the score went on the board as a draw. Justifiably so.

“It was probably fitting that they both got half a point,” Inkster said. 

Veteran analyst Judy Rankin pointed out that Thompson’s hands were quivering during a quick post-match interview, an observation that underscored the emotion.

“That had to be the weirdest round of golf I have ever played,” said Thompson, who finished 2-0-2 for the week. “The front nine, I don’t think I was awake, and the back nine, I played lights out.”

Nordqvist, the hard-luck runner-up in the U.S. Women’s Open last year, somehow found the fuel to finish 3-0-1 for the week, despite the illness.

“It’s been an incredible week,” Nordqvist said. “Overall, just exhausted, completely exhausted right now.”

A few minutes later, Solheim rookie Angel Yin nailed down the cup for the Yanks by halving a match on the 18th, but it was the leadoff pairing that was burned indelibly in the minds of most.

It had all the caprices, theatrical qualities, tectonic-sized momentum shifts, good and bad shots that define great match play.

Said Gannon: “This is a match that is going to be remembered for some time.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling