Anne van Dam draws strength from offbeat route to Solheim Cup debut

Ewan Murray
Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It would be an exaggeration to portray Anne van Dam’s journey towards the Solheim Cup as unorthodox. Yet of the 24 participants at Gleneagles this weekend, in many ways she stands apart. Van Dam wasn’t raised in England, Spain or Florida, where golf forms part of the standard vernacular. On face value, the Dutch city of Arnhem is to golf what steak dinners are to vegetarians. This 23-year-old has broken the mould.

“Among my friends, golf was not really a sport; they’d ask why I needed to practise so much,” Van Dam says. “Now they all love it because they see what it brings me. For kids of a certain age [in the Netherlands] it isn’t an option or a sport they think about. That was difficult for me because I couldn’t really share my pleasure and experiences with people my age. But the more time I put into it, the better I got; winning tournaments and travelling internationally made me think about where my potential could take me. But at the start, it was hard; golf is not a big sport in Holland and the season isn’t great there either. By the time I was 16 I was travelling a lot with golf and by then I had the inner drive to keep going, to see how good I could be.”

Van Dam’s explanation, of success stoking her passion – she had previously swum to a high level – is perfectly logical. She topped the European element of qualifying for Catriona Matthew’s team and comfortably kept her card after this, her rookie year on the LPGA Tour in the US, during which she won $165,000 in prize money. At an average of 284 yards, she topped the driving distance charts there for good measure. Van Dam turned professional immediately upon leaving high school and hasn’t looked back. She will become only the second Dutch player to feature in a Solheim Cup.

“My parents are both pilots so they have very structured lives,” she says. “They always said: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, just pick something and put all your efforts into it.’ They told me if I wanted to play golf to go for it – but really go for it and leave nothing behind. It’s easier to do that when you see what can be possible; it flicks a switch.”

A flick was also switched in the wider golf world last winter after Van Dam’s supposedly perfect golf swing went viral. “I just posted the video, was driving home after seeing my coach in the off season and had a look at my phone. I was like: ‘What’s going on?’ It was funny and very nice that people might appreciate what you do or learn from you. It’s nice to inspire people, which is what I am trying to do; especially girls in Holland, Belgium, Germany who might think about what could happen with golf.”

Van Dam is wonderfully forthright, as illustrated at this year’s Scottish Open, when she publicly took aim at an easy course setup. Like so many of her peers, she has concerns about the direction of the Ladies European Tour – which continues to operate on a skeleton schedule – but at least offers a view on how things could be improved. “You need to start low again and start building up,” she says. “You need to restructure the whole system in terms of how many people keep their card and how many enter tournaments. Now we might have 140 players and 60 making the cut. I think you have to cut that to maybe 90 having their card with 35 or 40 making cuts. With that, you would make it stronger before tournaments start to grow.”

From Friday morning, women’s golf in Europe is at least guaranteed limelight. Van Dam hopes to partner one of her heroes, Suzann Pettersen, at some point during the Solheim Cup’s opening two days. “It’s amazing to be in a team with her,” she says.

She competed in the Junior Solheim Cup of 2013, but knows this will be a different experience. “Everyone has told me I’ll be nervous as hell,” Van Dam says. “But it’s a different kind of nerves, you look around and see all those people cheering for you. I’m determined to enjoy it.”