Pride And Passion
With the 2021 Solheim Cup all set to tee off next week, player Azahara Munoz shares her playlist and offers up why the biggest team event in women’s professional golf is also the best
By Matt Cooper
Illustration by Cat Sims
Golf has a reputation for being a straight-laced and sedate sport, a reputation that, by and large, is entirely appropriate. Every now and again, however, it all goes a little bit wild. A good example? The biennial clash between Europe and the United States of America that is the Solheim Cup – a week in women’s golf that is absolutely unlike any other. The match has a relatively short history: it was first played in 1990, but it is a contest that never needed gimmicks or contrivance to kickstart the drama – from the very start the action fizzed with competitive electricity. Until 2009 Team USA dominated proceedings, taking an 8-3 lead but Europe has won three of the last five and a key player in that revival has been Spain’s Azahara Munoz.
The 33-year-old from Malaga possesses an insight into the Solheim Cup that goes beyond her participation in the match itself. For one thing, she also played on three Junior Solheim Cup teams. For another, her club manufacturer PING was also instrumental in the creation of the contest. The company’s founder Karsten Solheim and his wife Louise were always keen supporters of women’s golf and throughout the 1970s sponsored events on the LPGA. When they caught wind of the possibility of a match between Europe and America they were keen to add the kind of support that would establish long-standing roots. “The tournament is named after Karsten and Louise Solheim,” Azahara tells Glorious ahead of the next match, at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. “In fact, it’s entirely thanks to PING and the Solheim family that this amazing showcase of women’s sport is possible.”
The notion of the two land masses either side of the Atlantic locking golfing horns is, of course, very familiar to sports fans. The Ryder Cup emerged from a period of competitive gloom in the 1970s to become one of the most-watched men’s sporting spectacles on the planet. The two Cups are conducted in identical fashion: two teams of 12 players, eight matches played in pairs on both Friday and Saturday (four foursomes, four fourballs), and then 12 singles matches on Sunday.
It’s a simple formula and yet it has also proved magically potent because time after time the three days create almost unbearable sporting tension. “There’s just no other event like it,” says Azahara. “It’s a one-of-a-kind format for golfers, an entirely different team dynamic and the secret ingredient is that clash of continents. We’re all friends, but that edge makes it really matter.”
Back in August 2011, I first met Azahara ahead of the Irish Open at Killeen Castle near Dublin. A month later the course would host the Solheim Cup and she was on the verge of qualifying for her debut. She was thrilled by the prospect, desperate to play, yet also vigilant of getting ahead of herself. When we next met her place in the team was confirmed. The relief was obvious, her face awash with wide-eyed awe at the prospect of making her bow. When we talked a decade on, to discuss her Solheim Cup playlist, it was immediately apparent just how much that first experience had fulfilled all her expectations.
“You just don’t realise how special and different it is until you literally do it,” she laughs. “I mean, I had pretty huge expectations because I’d been on three Junior Solheim Cup teams. And that’s an amazing week for young golfers, by the way. It’s so exciting and inspiring, it’s as close as you can get to the real thing without actually being on the team. And yet guess what? It’s still nowhere, absolutely nowhere, not even close to the reality!”
This year PING will provide the European team outfits and Azahara has vivid memories of the treasured first time she pulled on the shirt. “There’s so much pride involved because you have worked so hard for that honour and just knowing that you are one of 12 people who are representing your continent – that’s a pretty massive wow factor right there. Those first days on your debut are full of so many wild experiences and emotions: the first time in the team room, meeting up with old friends, making new ones, practice days, the opening ceremony, the gala dinner. And you haven’t even got to the first tee yet, which is another level of wow factor completely!”
Which neatly leads us to Azahara’s first song. The first tee at a golf event is normally a sober spot with little noise except for the polite applause that greets a straight shot. Not at the Solheim. Instead, that small rectangle of grass is surrounded on three sides by banked grandstands, packed with fans in fancy dress, singing at the tops of their voices. The atmosphere is raucous, a little delirious, and also completely terrifying for the players. “The best advice I ever got was from eight-time Solheim Cup player Sophie Gustafson. She said, ‘Accept that you’ll be nervous and embrace it.’ It’s something I’ve been able to do very well, thankfully, because you might not look it, but you’re so shaky you can barely tee the ball up. It’s a bit mad as well. Where else would thousands of people be singing your name at the top of their voices? They sing Sweet Caroline a lot so I thought of that, but my first song is Ole, Ole, Ole. The European fans sing it when I walk on the tee and it will always remind me of that buzz.”
The rowdy start to the round is not the only element of the Solheim Cup that is massively at odds with everything else in golf – instead, it is merely the first of many. Perhaps the most striking contrast is that most weeks golfers are constantly battling to maintain composure and restrain all emotion. Good shot, bad shot, lucky shot, dropped shot – they treat each of them the same. “Then we get to the Solheim Cup and go bananas!” Azahara laughs. “Absolutely! It’s so true. We just throw everything out the window. Calm, measured, steady? Forget that, we just go for it.” Her second song selection – Giant by Calvin Harris – will always prompt happy memories of that boisterous chaos and also the distinct nature of team golf.
“When we won the match in Scotland in 2019, oh wow, we would put Giant on so loud to pump ourselves up. Those moments are why I like being in a team, because I’m a very social person and, in fact, golf can be quite lonely. But when I’m on a team, I’m not only playing with, but for, my teammates. I can turn to them throughout the round, to encourage them and to seek encouragement as well. Honestly, I grind so hard for my team. People sometimes don’t understand that it’s so important to be a good teammate off the course as well. It’s not just about putting a point on the scoreboard; it’s about helping your teammates score points.”
The third song might be the least predictable. “This is a bit cheesy, but it’s Gangnam Style because this was so big when we won for the first time in America in 2013 (a feat no other European team has achieved). It started early in the week when we set up in teams, forfeits, that type of thing. The caddies were involved, including my husband Tim, and they all had to dance Gangnam Style. To begin with, they were so nervous because they just didn’t want to dance at all and they were embarrassed. But we had masks and it was strange because when they put them on it was as if no one could see them. Suddenly, they really went for it. From that moment on, any time we wanted laughs or to stop everything getting heavy, we put Gangnam Style back on.”
The final song is one Azahara has been able to belt out in three of her four appearances and it needs little explanation. “We Are The Champions” by Queen is an obvious one but it’s what we sing when we win,” she says. “It’s just too perfect. It’s such a release of energy and relief and joy after a crazy week of so many emotions. When you win it feels soooo good.”
Back in 2019 Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, known to all the players as Beany, captained the team to glory on home soil. It was a wonderful reward for a long career that witnessed major championship glory, with triumph in the 2009 Women’s Open, and long-standing success in the Solheim Cup. Perhaps her greatest performance came in leading the singles charge in Azahara’s debut in 2011. “Beany was brilliant in Ireland and in every Solheim I’ve played. She’s quiet but determined and a great partner. She has a calm authority as a captain. She’s desperate to defend the Cup this year and get us singing again.”
Ultimately, Azahara knows that music has been an integral part of her Solheim adventure. This is, after all, a golfer who, when her crucial debut singles match was delayed by bad weather, I saw emerge from the clubhouse wiggling her hips to the tunes playing in her head after leaving the team room. “I don’t remember that!” she laughs. “But it’s another reason I love the Solheim because it always amazes me how the team room accommodates so many different personalities and how does that happen? A lot of the time because of music.”
Azahara enthuses, “Oh, there’s nothing like it. I didn’t know it till I was there. But I knew immediately, this is the best tournament I have ever been a part of. And now I’ve played four and they’ve been, no question, the best four tournaments I have ever been involved in.”
The Solheim Cup takes place 4-6 September at Inverness Club, Toledo, Ohio. There will be live coverage on Sky Sports Golf.
The PING Junior Solheim Cup takes place at Sylvania Country Club, located 15 minutes from the Solheim Cup venue, 1-3 September.
For further information, visit: www.solheimcup.com
Listen to Azahara’s playlist here
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