Abundance of rookies a Solheim Cup challenge for U.S. captain Juli Inkster

U.S. captain Juli Inkster, left, saw her 2019 team get a bit younger with veteran Stacy Lewis, right, withdrawing from play on Tuesday. Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

GLENEAGLES, Scotland -- If U.S. captain Juli Inkster had any concerns regarding the lack of experience on her third Solheim Cup team, the first big news of this week in Scotland did not help matters.

On Monday, Stacy Lewis, the veteran Inkster had selected as a captain's pick specifically to offset the number of rookies who qualified by right, was in tears on the range.

The suspicion was that her participation was in doubt because of a back injury, and on Tuesday morning, it was confirmed. Ally McDonald, a traveling reserve, immediately replaced her.

In one fell swoop, Inkster's rookie count rose from five to six. A neat half dozen, exactly half the team, and in simple terms, there have not been this many first-timers on an American side since the inaugural match in 1990.

It is an experience gap Inkster has never shied from. In fact, the Californian herself has willingly expanded on it.

"I've actually only got four players who've played more than one Cup," Inkster said ahead of the action, before the number was trimmed to three via Lewis' departure. "So I have a question mark on how the team responds. They're in Scotland, in front of these crowds, in bad weather. It's up in the air."

There is a real sense that Inkster, who is seeking an unprecedented hat trick of captaincy wins, faces her greatest challenge.

The first win four years ago in Germany witnessed an astonishing final-day turnaround by her team, a collective who -- when fueled by a perceived slight by Suzann Pettersen -- responded with righteous fury.

In one sense, Inkster was handed her pre-singles team talk on a plate. In another, she utilized the situation superbly. Fiery and passionate by nature, she was in her element.

Two years later, she rode the wave on home soil with a team full of flag wavers and natural leaders.

But those golfers are gone. No Cristie Kerr (ever-present for nine matches). No Paula Creamer (who had played the past seven). No Brittany Lincicome (the past six). No Michelle Wie (the past five). And no Lewis, either (the past five also). Those golfers did not just bring points to the team, but also presence, passion and intensity.

Speaking last week, there was a sense that Inkster was wary, concerned less by the inexperience of her team than by its reserved nature.

"I think it will be very difficult," she said. "Can it be done? Yeah. But it will be tough and we'll have to be in a good mindset.

"The weather will be a huge factor. We're American, so we're fair-weather golfers, we don't like rain and wet. I have a young team and they might have played a British Open once in a while in bad weather, but 36 holes in it? That's a new ballgame. It's going to probably be the toughest weeks of these girls' careers."

Spin it forward a few days and Inkster seems re-energized, as if her concerns were the byproduct of the waiting game, and now that the team is together, with the players on site and readying themselves, she feels more comfortable with their character and chemistry.

Asked if she is concerned that Americans have played two, lost two in Scotland, Inkster wisecracked: "Those girls don't know that we've never won in Scotland -- unless you guys tell them.

"You know what? We've got six great rookies. They made the team. They qualified.

"And honestly? I think it's a lot easier to play away in your first Solheim because you're really not expected to win. You can play a little looser. You don't have the USA crowd pumping you up, and you just rely a lot on your teammates. It's easier to bond over here -- you don't have a lot of outside distractions."

This was more like the bold captain we've come to know these past four years, and she riffed on the theme: "Everybody's a rookie once, right? I just happen to have six of them. So we're just going to throw them out there. They've got to grow up sometime."

Inkster is not hiding from the makeup of her team, nor is she hiding her players.

"We're not going to play a veteran with a rookie," she said. "I'm going to send a couple rookies out there together, and why not?"

Which is not to say that the veterans won't have a role to play. Lewis will stay on site and has already come to terms with her new role as mentor of her pod (McDonald is a like-for-like replacement in it). Inkster is aware that Lewis offers an insight she and her three vice captains (Nancy Lopez, Pat Hurst, Wendy Ward) lack.

"We're picking Stacy's brain about pairings and what she sees out there, because she's kind of got a little more of a pulse of the players than we do," Inkster said.

Morgan Pressel is playing a similar role and it is no coincidence that, like Lewis, she was a captain's pick.

"I'm getting them prepared for the emotional stress, basically," Pressel said. "It's so different. We're playing for each other, playing for our captains, playing for our country.

"But preparing them mentally for what's going to happen on the first tee on Friday? The nerves never go away. When I played in Germany, my fifth Solheim Cup, that was maybe the most nervous I've ever been, and I knew it was coming."

Ward told of the best advice she was given as a rookie.

"So I got to hit the first shot in my foursomes with Beth Daniel and she looked at me and said, 'You need to breathe. Your face is white. You really need to breathe and have fun.'"

Lopez joined in the laughter. The LPGA Hall of Famer has no fear of turning to the greenhorns.

"When I was captain (in 2005), I had three rookies and they were my best players," Lopez said. "So I put them out early and the press were all over me about that: Why are you playing your rookies?

"I said, 'They're my best players.' So I put them out there and they did great."

No one is overlooking the potential problems of the apprentice half dozen. In 2013 and 2015, for example, the five U.S. rookies earned a combined four points from 16 matches.

A repeat of that haul would be disastrous.

On the other hand, two years ago, Danielle Kang won three of her four matches, while Austin Ernst and Angel Yin operated at a respectable 50 percent.

Inkster is aware of the knife edge between a glorious three-peat and the realization that this was a step too far.

"They could play great or they might not," she said with a wry smile and a shrug.

"It's a crapshoot."