Ciganda, teammates script selves into Solheim lore

Ciganda, teammates script selves into Solheim lore
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CASARES, Spain – “No, no, NO!” Carlota Ciganda pleaded.

“Please, not now. Not now.

“Why now?

“Why is this happening now?

Now was the most pressure-packed moment of Ciganda’s career, when in front of her entire nation, against the Americans’ most talented player, the fiery Spaniard struck a bone-chilling shank that had suddenly and shockingly imperiled Europe’s chances of an unprecedented three-peat at the Solheim Cup.

Entrusted by her captain to deliver in the penultimate match, Ciganda had instead clanked a 7-iron nearly off the course at Finca Cortesin, leading to a double bogey, a lost hole and – most critically – a lost lead with just three holes to play.

Ciganda had reason, in that moment, to question herself. She’d battled in-round shanks before. She’d seen how they can linger, how they can pop up again at inopportune times, how the feeling at the bottom of the swing can sometimes turn from a hit into a hope. It’d also been a cruel summer, not just with a few blown chances to win for the first time since 2016, but also the controversial slow-play penalty she declined to accept at the Evian Championship that led to a disqualification and curious non-apology. Add in the pressure of competing at home, in the biggest event in the women’s game, with all of her captains and teammates and supporters counting on her to perform, and it was a lot to handle.

Waiting for her on the 16th tee was European captain Suzann Pettersen, perhaps the only person on property who could match Ciganda’s burning intensity.

“Go out and do this for your country,” Pettersen hissed in her ear.

Playing in her home country, Carlota Ciganda earned the point that retained the cup for Europe.

Ciganda’s caddie, Alvaro Alonso, had a more tactical message: “I told her, ‘Come on, keep going, hit the next three greens,’” Alonso said later. “If she could hit it close to the pin, she’d make it – that’s how good she’s been playing this week.”

But as Ciganda knows all-too well, the first iron shot after a shank is always full of dread – will it happen again? – and the moment only intensified once opponent Nelly Korda, now tied, stuffed her approach to 8 feet on 16.

That’s when Ciganda grabbed a 54-degree wedge, went through her usual routine, made an aggressive swing – and flushed it. Her ball landed 3 feet from the flag, touching off a raucous celebration in the largest hospitality tent on the course, the delirious and sunburned fans chanting Ciganda’s name and waving a dozen Spanish flags into the whipping wind. With the crowd still at full throat, Ciganda did little to silence them as Korda studied her birdie putt to tie. Ciganda raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers, imploring them to get louder, the course conductor asking for more, more, more.

After Korda’s putt missed low, Ciganda operated in near-silence and then buried the putt to jump back in front for good.

Floating to the next tee, the entire cup was now on her slender shoulders. Up ahead rookie Maja Stark had just closed out her match, putting Europe within a point of retaining the cup. Ciganda pulled 8-iron and stepped into her shot.

Sensing Korda’s eyes upon him, and in a clever bit of gamesmanship, Alonso put down two fingers – 7-iron – as he signaled to the nearby TV spotter. Ciganda’s shot rifled through the bright blue sky and dropped just shy of the flag – closer, even, than the pure wedge she’d struck just a few minutes before.

The crowd exploded.

Of course, Ciganda’s heroics weren’t the only reason the Europeans have now captured three consecutive cups for the first time in their history.

Leona Maguire dusted American superstar Rose Zhang, 4 and 3, in her fifth and final match of another dominant week.

Stark capped a memorable rookie debut by knocking off perhaps the Americans’ hottest player this week, U.S. Women’s Open champion Allisen Corpuz.

And then there was Caroline Hedwall.

As much as Pettersen touted the depth of this group – arguably the strongest and deepest in European history – her actions showed she had serious reservations about half of her lineup. Three players went all five sessions, the most in nearly two decades, and Pettersen’s initial plan included “at least” five or six going the distance. In the end, the Swede, now 42, captained as she played: raw, intense, emotional, a bit intimidating. Though she had analytics at her disposal, Pettersen put greater trust in her competitive instincts, honed during a long and decorated Solheim career, and immeasurables like heart and grit and destiny.

And so, with no interest in handing out participation trophies this week, Pettersen played Gemma Dryburgh only once before Sunday. She kept Evian champion Celine Boutier, the team’s highest-ranked player, on the bench for half of the team sessions. And, yes, she didn’t send out Hedwall – a former Solheim teammate – until Saturday afternoon, and perhaps only then because of the tournament rule that required it.

In that fourballs session Hedwall started like a woman with something to prove, ripping off five early birdies, but then she reverted to the mean. She and longtime partner Anna Nordqvist lost, 2 up, opening up Pettersen to even more criticism: Why bring Hedwall to Spain at all just to go 0-1?

Pettersen’s singles lineup was fascinating if for no other reason than to see how she’d try to maximize her team’s strengths while masking a few weaknesses. Sure enough, Hedwall was thrown squarely in no-man’s-land – match No. 8, in no position, seemingly, that could swing the outcome of the cup.

Buried halfway in a spirited singles lineup, Hedwall started predictably, falling behind veteran Ally Ewing, 3 down, with six to play.

“I was just trying to stay patient,” Hedwall said. “Somehow, I just felt like it was going to turn around at some point, and truly it did.”

Birdies on 13 and 14.

Then birdies on 16 and 17, too.

Now she had the lead, outright, as she climbed the hill toward her ball in the middle of the 18th fairway. After backing off twice to get settled, Hedwall ripped a 3-wood that bounded up the slope and clambered onto the green, about 25 feet away for eagle – a defining shot that sealed a comeback for the ages.

“It was something in me,” Hedwall said later. “I never give up, and I showed that today.”

“She was the hero,” Pettersen said. “That’s why I picked her.”

Now one point from retaining the cup, Ciganda did the rest. She banged in her 2-footer and then was swallowed in a sea of white and blue.

Finally, Pettersen emerged from the pack to grab ahold of Ciganda. Pettersen couldn’t even muster any words; she just unleashed a guttural scream.

Waiting on the back of the green was Ciganda’s caddie, his bib still wet from a champagne shower, the celebration still in its early stages.

“We work hard for these moments, prepare hard for these moments,” Alonso said, “and now she’s a legend. She’s a legend forever. How special is that?”

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