Suzann Pettersen has been Norway’s star golfer for nearly two decades, but experts claim she now may be irreversibly tarnished. The respect she’s commanded suddenly dissolved into hatred after she controversially contested a putt during the weekend’s Solheim Cup tournament between professional women golfers from Europe and the US. At first she defended herself, but later apologized.
The reaction to Pettersen’s decision to point out a rules violation by a much younger player, Alison Lee of the US, has been so harsh and so emotional that golf commentators in Norway said Monday that Pettersen also may need extra security guards the next time she plays in a tournament. She risks being booed off the green and meeting other angry reaction from spectators, Norwegian golf expert Hallvar Flatland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Pettersen’s crime was her stated objection when Lee, who was making her debut in Solheim Cup competition, apparently assumed she’d be given a putt when her ball landed somewhere between 25 and 40 centimeters from the 17th hole. She picked up the ball without actually putting it into the hole and without getting a nod from her opponent Pettersen.
That prompted Pettersen to alert officials to how Lee had broken the rules, but Pettersen herself had broken an unwritten rule of golf. Most all golfers would have given Lee the nod and allowed her to pocket par. Pettersen’s decision not to go along was widely viewed as showing Pettersen to be a bad sport. She issued an apology on Monday: “I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picutre in the heat of the battle and competition,” she wrote. “I was trying my hardest for my team and put the single match and the point that could be earned ahead of sportsmanship and the game of golf itself! I feel like I let my team down and I am sorry.”
‘They hated us’
Pettersen’s performance in the Solheim Cup, named for the Norwegian golfer Karsten Solheim behind Ping golf clubs, had been under pressure since the tournament that plays out every two years began late last week. She’s played in the Solheim Cup eight times but was already being chastised in Norwegian media that she’d better do better than her previous record for single play in the tournament.
Pettersen, age 34, admitted herself that her hard line with Lee, who started to cry, froze relations between the European and American teams, with the latter going on to play strongly and win. “They hated us,” she told Eurosport, but initially claimed she couldn’t understand why since “they were the ones” to make a mistake, “not us.”
Norwegian golf expert and Viasat commentator Per Haugsrud firmly disagreed. He sided with scores of others, also most of the press corps covering the tournament, that Pettersen should have given the putt and its important result to Lee. “It’s very important to be a ‘gentleman’ in our sport, and what she (Pettersen) did was on the verge of being unheard of,” he told NRK. “She’s a pillar on the European team, so that made it extra bad. In a matter of seconds she tore down the reputation she’s built up over so many years.”
Newspaper Aftenposten, which was covering the tournament at St Leon-Rot in southern Germany, reported that Pettersen had some defenders. Lee had been the target of two warnings the day before for picking up the ball before her opponents had given her a nod or verbal allowance to do so. One of her teammates also reportedly yelled “don’t pick it up” after a birdie putt, while Jon Karlsen of the Norwegian golf federaton (Norges Golfforbund) claimed that players can’t decide themselves which putts they’ll get. “Tutta (Pettersen’s nickname in Norway) did the only right thing,” Karlsen claimed. “Lee’s the one who made a mistake.” A survey in Sweden by website Golf.se showed that out of 320 readers responding, 249 supported Pettersen and 71 said she’d made the mistake.
Pettersen herself seemed to be trying hard to fend off the controversy, and told NRK she wasn’t worried about her reputation. “They (the Americans and their fans) were the ones who overreacted,” she told NRK on Sunday. “We play by the book, unfortunately the American made a mistake. We can’t do anything about that.” She had also told Eurosport Norge that it was “clear” throughout the tournament that “if you’re going to get a putt, it must have been given away.”
On Monday she softened her stance and wrote that she’d “never felt more gutted and truly sad about what went down Sunday on the 17th at the Solheim Cup.” After taking time to reevaluate the situation, and clearly taking into account the vitriolic response, she apologized to the American team and to “the fans of golf,” claiming that she was “sorry for the way I carried myself. I can be so much better and being an ambassador for this great game means a lot to me.” She wrote that she wished she “could change Sunday for many reasons. Unfortunately I can’t.” She thus opted to express a hope for forgiveness and claimed she had learned “a valuable lesson.”
Pettersen lives in Florida and plays most of her tournaments in the US, where commentators had been warning she may no longer be welcome. Karlsen of the Norwegian golf federation thinks the controversy will die down. “Tutta is very strong, mentally, and I think she’ll tackle this just fine,” he said.