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Solemn start to raucous competition

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LODDEKOPINGE, Sweden — The Solheim Cup's short history of hostility was put aside when Europeans and Americans took their seats on stage for the opening ceremonies.

Ten flags were raised during the national anthems, then lowered to half-staff.

Heads bowed Thursday in a moment of silence for Anna Lindh, Sweden's popular foreign minister whose stabbing death shocked the nation.

"It's even more important than ever to focus on sportsmanship and friendship," European captain Catrin Nilsmark said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Adding to the pensive atmosphere was the two-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, which forced the Solheim Cup to be canceled in 2001.

"We've been remembering Sept. 11, and then to have this other tragedy on top, it's just made this a difficult day," U.S. captain Patty Sheehan said. "Everybody is very sad."

That could change once the first tee shot is in the air.

The Solheim Cup, the most intense competition in women's golf, gets under way Friday morning at Barseback Golf & Country Club with about 30,000 fans expected to give Europe a distinct home-course advantage.

"It might be a little more raucous," Meg Mallon said. "It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out."

The United States leads the series 5-2 and is coming off a 15 1/2-12 1/2 victory last year in Minnesota when it hammered Europe on the final day of singles.

That doesn't make the Americans the favorites.

Europe has one of its strongest teams ever, led by Annika Sorenstam, whom Nilsmark introduced as the "leading lady in golf." More strength comes from Laura Davies, who has played every match of every Solheim Cup since it began in 1990, and gives this week higher priority than a major championship.

"You'd have to have at least a major and three or four other wins in a year to make it the same feeling of winning a Solheim Cup," Davies said. "When you finish second in a tournament, you're disappointed, but you go, 'Oh well, there's one next week.'

"With the Solheim Cup, you really feel like a loser. And there's nothing worse than that."

Europe is still stinging from last year.

Davies recalled walking into the locker room and seeing Sorenstam and her husband, David Esch, writing "364" on masking tape that lined the walls — the number of days Europe had to wait to try to win the cup.

"The minute we lost, she was working on how long it had been before we could win it back," Davies said. "She takes the Solheim Cup as seriously as myself. She hates losing. That's what makes her so good."

Such intensity has led to some animosity inside the ropes.

It started in 1998 when Europeans thought Dottie Pepper was celebrating too much and too often, so they pasted her picture to a punching bag and took turns whaling away.

Two years later, the Americans made Sorenstam redo a chip-in for birdie at Loch Lomond because she went out of turn.

Emotions ran so high at Interlachen that Suzann Pettersen blurted out a four-letter word when she rallied from 5-down to earn a halve with Michele Redman. And Nilsmark didn't help the cause last year when she posted a scathing scouting report of the U.S. team on a Swedish web site last year.

That has been forgotten — at least for now — because Nilsmark is on crutches this week, courtesy of excruciating back spasms that kept her from walking in with her team during opening ceremonies. She stood on crutches the entire time, and officials had to modify her cart so she could get around the course.

The Americans have been relaxed ever since they arrived Monday on the southern tip of Sweden, perhaps knowing their team is essentially the same as last year, and realizing that all of the pressure is squarely on Europe.

"We're a little more calm being away because the hubbub isn't about us," Kelly Robbins said. "When we're in the States, the pressure is enormous. When you come over here, you get excited ... and you know it's not going to be easy for them."

Robbins and Beth Daniel, two of the best ball-strikers on the LPGA Tour, will lead off in the alternate-shot session Friday morning against Davies and Carin Koch, the best putter for Europe.

Four alternate-shot matches will be followed by four best-ball matches, with the same format Saturday and then 12 singles on Sunday.

The United States needs only 14 points to retain the cup.

"The hardest thing is momentum," Juli Inkster said. "If they get on a roll and get the crowd behind them, it's tough. We've got to wear ear plugs."