CASARES, Spain – U.S. captain Stacy Lewis’ faith in Lexi Thompson was rewarded Friday with a tone-setting victory in the opening match of what became a stunning foursomes sweep at the Solheim Cup.
The 4-0 start at Finca Cortesin marked the first time that the Americans had swept a session in the alternate-shot format and humbled the home team that had fielded arguably its strongest squad ever.
Leading the way for the U.S. team – improbably – was Thompson, mired in her worst slump as a pro and ranked 138th on the LPGA’s season-long race. But Thompson still was named to the team as the top-ranked American (26th) not automatically qualified, and Lewis noticed an uptick in form a few weeks ago, when Thompson tied for 19th in her final start before the biennial matches.
Still, Lewis’ plan was to keep the long-hitting Thompson on the bench until Friday afternoon fourballs – but then she began to have second thoughts once she saw Thompson tear it up in practice rounds here in Spain. Relying heavily on a data-analytics team to inform her pairings decisions, Lewis said that Thompson’s strokes-gained numbers in practice were “off the charts.”
And so, with a few holes remaining in their final practice round Thursday, Lewis told Thompson and Megan Khang to start discussing golf balls – a clear indication that the captain was thinking about trotting them out for the opening foursomes session.
“She wasn’t in my lineup that I’ve had for a couple of weeks,” Lewis said, “and just the way the last four days have gone, just the way she’s seemed mentally, I just had a good feeling about it.”
Thompson chuckled Friday when discussing the origins of the partnership, saying that it was “last minute.”
“I think she knew that we would have no problem playing together,” Khang said.
Amplifying the pressure, Lewis also sent Thompson, the longest-tenured U.S. member, out first, against one of Europe’s most formidable duos, the young Swedish pair of Linn Grant and Maja Stark. It was a selection that was ripe for second-guessing, not just because of Thompson’s current form, but because of the caliber of players that Lewis was leaving on the sidelines – namely, Lilia Vu, a two-time major winner this season, and 20-year-old sensation Rose Zhang.
But Thompson quickly proved her worth, pummeling a drive into the right greenside bunker on the short opening hole, setting up the first of three consecutive won holes for the U.S. side.
Thompson and Khang appeared an ideal match in alternate shot, a wild contrast in styles with Thompson’s big blows and Khang’s tidy short game. It helped, too, that Khang was playing some of the best golf of her career, fresh off a victory less than a month ago in Canada. Khang struck two of the best shots of the day – a tee shot to nearly kick-in range on the par-3 10th to tie the hole, and then a lethal long iron into the difficult 15th that Thompson capitalized on to give the Americans the decisive advantage.
The match ended with Grant missing a 4-footer for par on 17, handing the Americans a 2-and-1 victory during a match in which they never trailed.
“We both just played really solid golf on both sides,” Thompson said. “She had so many amazing iron shots and gave me looks for birdies, and I just tried to get her down there as far as I could.”
“She smacked the ball so far down there,” Khang said. “I had some numbers that I didn’t even have in my book – I was like, Wow, this is different.”
The visitors would then tack on three more points over the next hour to win their first opening foursomes session since 2007 and silence the home crowd.
It was just the second time, overall, that the Americans won all four matches in a session. Their timing couldn’t have been better, what with the Europeans trying to claim their first three-peat in this event.
“It’s just the vibe we’ve had all week, and just letting these girls be themselves,” Lewis said. “Thankfully, they trusted all my crazy talk of stats and my ideas, and they believed in me. That’s what I told them when they got done: ‘Thank you for believing.’”
When the final putt of the session dropped – a 5-footer from Allisen Corpuz that sealed a narrow victory and opening sweep – Lewis hopped on the radio and tried to set the tone. Forget about what the leaderboard said, she relayed to the rest of her charges: “It’s 2-2. Let’s go back out. Let’s go back to work.”
And that includes Thompson.
She will be sent out in the afternoon, as planned, but with a new partner: Vu, perhaps the Americans’ best player.