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Captain America

JoAnne Carner made the Solheim Cup into goodwill games and still led the U.S. to a rout of Europe

Leaning against a yardage post on the practice tee at The Greenbrier Course in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., JoAnne Carner blew cigarette smoke into the cool mountain air. The captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team was waiting out a fog delay on the first day of competition. On this Friday morning all she could think was. Now I know how Don feels.

For years her husband, Don, has followed JoAnne around golf courses, worrying about every shot his wife took. Now the golfer, who is affectionately known as Big Momma, was America's captain. Cocked jauntily on her head was a baseball cap covered with red, white and blue sequins. Clipped to her pants pocket was a walkie-talkie with a wire running to an earpiece. What red lipstick wasn't stuck to her cigarette filter rimmed her lips. The only suspect part of Big Momma's otherwise patriotic ensemble were her black suede hiking shoes. "All I have to do is look at her and I'm tickled." said the U.S.'s Tammie Green, a Solheim Cup rookie. "That hat is a classic."

Later, on the 1st tee, Carner paced nervously as each of the day's matches was introduced. She had binoculars to keep tabs on the action on the 1st green, 368 yards away. One by one the Americans teed off. First, Brandie Burton, who was paired in the alternate-shot foursomes with Dottie Mochrie against the European pair of Helen Alfredsson and Liselotte Neumann; then Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon; then Kelly Robbins and Green. As part of Carner's strategy, each pairing's big hitter teed off on the 1st hole. "It's hard holding my breath," she said in her gravelly voice after Donna Andrews's drive found the fairway. Through her earpiece came a report that Daniel and Mallon had drawn first blood in the matches by winning the 2nd hole. Carner swaggered when she heard the applause echo up through the corridors of autumn leaves. "It's killing me not to be playing," she said.

The day developed into a struggle for Carner's team, as the U.S. won only two of the five matches to fall behind 3-2 going into the better-ball competition on Saturday. "I've got a headache, and I'm ready for a Stoli," she said at the end of the day. "It was like I played every shot, I putted every putt, I hit every chip. It was so exciting and yet so nerve-racking to be sitting on the sidelines watching."

As the drama was played out last week in the Allegheny Mountains, Carner settled into her role as commander in chief of the U.S. women. She not only led her team to victory over the defending champions from Europe, but she also did so in a manner that exemplified the true spirit of the game.

Any bad feelings between the two teams that may have lingered since the 1992 matches, at Dalmahoy Hotel Golf & Country Club, in Edinburgh, Scotland, were diffused early in the week. Carner saw to that by offering rides to European stars Alfredsson and Laura Davies on the U.S. team's charter flight from Florida to West Virginia. Carner sat with members of the European team during Wednesday night's hoedown at The Greenbrier. "We're friends with everybody on the opposing side—until this week," Carner said at her opening news conference.

Carner's approach created an atmosphere that was in sharp contrast to the Americans' mood at Dalmahoy. Kathy Whitworth was the U.S. captain that year, but her mother died the week of the competition, and the Hall of Famer had to fly to New Mexico for the funeral. That left the team under the direction of LPGA president-elect Alice Miller, who was unprepared to lead the Americans in what turned out to be a tense atmosphere.

The Europeans had felt insulted by some incendiary quotes that were attributed to Daniel. "You could put any one of [the U.S. players] on the European side and make it better," she was quoted in Golf Digest as saying. "But the only Europeans who could help us are Laura Davies and Liselotte Neumann." Daniel still claims that what she said was taken out of context, although she doesn't deny saying it. Trailing by a point going into the last day, the U.S. came out flat, lost seven of the 10 singles matches and was summarily routed 11½-6½.

"I think what happened with Kathy at Dalmahoy, with her mother dying, that was a very sad time," Patty Sheehan said. "I don't think any of us knew how to handle it. This week is much more upbeat. There haven't been any problems. We've gotten along better. JoAnne has been a lot of fun. She's kept things loose in meetings. She's the match-play queen."

Indeed, Carner, an LPGA Hall of Famer who has won 42 times on the tour, was undefeated as an amateur in Curtis Cup singles matches and had a .910 winning percentage in USGA match-play competitions. Yet she had a unique way of destroying opponents without leaving any bitter residue.

Carner had heard about some of the 1992 problems, and she vowed that things would be different when she was the Solheim captain. She did not consult with Whitworth or any former U.S. Ryder Cup captains—not even with Sam Snead, who for years has been a friend and mentor and is the pro emeritus at The Greenbrier. "I decided to wing it," she said. "If I'm going down, I'm going down my way."

She entertained the players with stories about her first date with Don and had Sheehan read a letter that Patty Berg had written to the teams—doing her best Berg impersonation. Carrier also hosted a family dinner on Friday night that 62 relatives and friends of the U.S. players attended. It was typical Carner when she drew a blank while introducing Burton on the dais at the pretournament dinner. Burton promised to wear a name tag the rest of the week. "JoAnne's really brought us together," said alternate Michelle McGann.

Carner had her pairings set when the team boarded its plane on Monday. She handed out copies to every player, even Alfredsson and Davies. She paired Burton and Mochrie because of their compatible temperaments. Daniel and Mallon were paired because they're close friends. Green would play with Robbins in a pairing of Solheim rookies; Carner's thinking was that Green, 34, would settle the 25-year-old Robbins. Her most accurate shotmaking team was Andrews, who won this year's Nabisco Dinah Shore, and Betsy King. She hoped to calm Cup rookie Sherri Steinhauer by pairing her with Sheehan, a veteran of the two previous Solheims. "I wanted to have a long hitter and a good putter on each team," she said.

For Saturday's four-ball matches Carner didn't juggle her pairings, nor did she alter the batting order. Steinhauer and Sheehan went off last because they were the shortest-hitting tandem and would benefit from the ground's drying out. The U.S. won three of the five matches, and it was all tied, 5-5, going into the singles. At the team meeting Saturday night, Carner was as straightforward as ever, never straining for words of inspiration. She announced the Sunday order of play and discussed it with the team. In a gamble she put Steinhauer and Andrews in the possibly crucial last two matches because they were the team's short hitters. Burton was slotted to go off first, but she asked to start later because of a knee injury. As it turned out, Burton drew Davies in the seventh match, which was the pairing Carner had wanted. "The strategy is just to win," she told the team.

Which is just what the U.S. did Sunday, winning eight of the 10 matches for a 13-7 victory.

At Thursday night's players' dinner, Carner had asked each member of the team to stand up and say a few words. The rookies went first, and Robbins said, "This is something I can tell my grandkids about someday."

"Kel, wait a second," McGann interjected. "You're not even married yet."

A smile crossed Robbins's face. "O.K.," she said. "I guess I'll tell my dog."

It went around the table that way until the veterans got their say. One of the last to speak was Daniel. She gave an emotional speech and concluded by saying, "And just remember, it isn't over till the fat lady holds the Cup."

This nearly knocked the drink out of Carner's hand. "What?" she said.

There were roars of laughter.

Sunday night, there were roars of delight. Big Momma was holding the Cup.




A fog delay was a drag on Carner's nerves as she waited for Burton (right) to go off in the first match.



[See caption above.]



Cup benefactor Karsten Solheim (far left) of Ping fame presided at the opening ceremony, but the popular Carner reigned all week.



As Daniel (back row, third from right) had predicted, when it was over, the fat lady held the Cup.