Azahara Muñoz has been fulfilling dreams all her life, from her first attempts into amateur golf in federative tournaments to the international events also as an amateur that she played on both sides of the Atlantic, whether on the links that host the Girls Amateur Championship or the British Ladies Amateur or on the courses that saw her win the NCAA individual championship or received her as part of the team in the PING Junior Solheim Cup.
The Malaga-born player turned professional in 2009 and continued to achieve goals and win titles. She became the first Spaniard to achieve continuity in a competition as demanding as the Solheim Cup, earning the trust of four different captains (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2019), and opening the door to Carlota Ciganda, an inseparable friend, from 2013, the year of the Navarrese’s debut.
With the recent memory of the tournament played this year at the Inverness Club in Ohio, where a European team free of complexes imposed its quality and self-confidence on the American team, Azahara Muñoz (who did not play on this occasion) is clear that her dream is to return to the team in 2023. The four European victories in the last six editions, from her point of view, are a logical consequence of the great work of the European team and its captains.
“Nowadays we believe it, we are confident that we can do it and the team is better. When I played my first PING Junior Solheim Cup, 18 years ago, I was 15 or 16 years old and there were Ladies European Tour players who had never played in America. If one of those players faced an American who didn’t even know her opponent’s name, it was as if she was already three down on the first tee,” recalls Muñoz. “Now all the European players are very good, they have won, they play on the LPGA Tour and play in Majors and, although the Americans are still ahead in world ranking, in match-play we Europeans are more connected and we play as a team. Now we don’t think we’re going to have a good time just at the party on Sunday. We arrive thinking that we are going to win the Cup”.
Azahara Muñoz made her debut in 2011 at the Solheim Cup held in Ireland, at Killeen Castle, at a delicate moment for the LET golfers. After three consecutive defeats, Alison Nicholas, the European captain, pulled for youth with six players under the age of 27: Melissa Reid, Anna Nordqvist, Christel Boeljon, Caroline Hedwall, Sandra Gal, and Azahara Muñoz, the last three picked by her. Although five of these six were rookies, they had already performed on the LPGA Tour and had forged unbreakable relationships living away from home.
Azahara got off to the best possible start, beating Stacy Lewis and Angela Stanford in the first day’s foursomes with Catriona Matthew, and tying the following day against Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer, another strong American pairing. After losing with Maria Hjorth in the second day’s fourballs to Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome, Europe was tied in the singles session, usually favourable to the Americans.
On the last day, with a heroic comeback from Hedwall, Muñoz and Pettersen, Europe confirmed victory when Azahara birdied the 17th hole of the Irish course against Angela Stanford.
“The week in Ireland was spectacular, especially how we came back on the last day. I was very young, 22-23 years old, a child, and that made me believe and know that I could do anything. The pressure was incredible. I had never felt so many nerves, putting while my hands were shaking, and when you realise that you can play under so much pressure, you know you can play in any circumstances. It helped me to believe in myself and to realise that you want to play a lot more Solheim Cups, and that’s very motivating. You say to yourself, ‘This is a Solheim year. Let’s go for it,'” recapped Muñoz.
After the magnificent triumph in Ireland, the 2013 edition was played at Colorado Golf Club, historic for Spanish golf because of the presence of three Spanish players in the team captained by Liselotte Neumann. Carlota Ciganda, Azahara Muñoz and Beatriz Recari won seven points out of the ten they played and gave Europe 38% of the points that went up to the European scoreboard. Beyond the numbers, their contribution was decisive in Europe’s first victory on American soil, combining determination, quality and solidity to win for the first time in the United States and finish with the widest difference in the history of the Solheim Cup: 18 to 10 for Europe. In addition, Azahara Muñoz and Carlota Ciganda relived the best memories of their time in the national teams where they were a historic pair in foursomes without anyone beating them, and made their debut as a pair in fourballs on the second day, defeating Gerina Piller and Angela Stanford.
“We knew we could do it, but one thing is to think you can do it, and a different one is to win. It’s just unbelievable. It’s very difficult to win in the United States with the crowd against you, that’s why it’s never happened before,” explained Muñoz. “We wanted the Cup. We wanted to win in the United States for the first time. But I think the most important thing is that we wanted to win for Lotta (Liselotte Neumann, the European captain). It’s great to be next to her, she made us feel very comfortable. She really deserved it. We were all thinking about it and we wanted to do it for her,” recalls Azahara.
In 2015, for the third consecutive edition, Azahara Muñoz returned to the team captained this time by Carin Koch, but the United States won a very close victory by just one point. The player from Malaga would have to wait four years, until the Gleneagles edition, to get rid of the bitter taste in her mouth of that defeat in Germany.
Regardless of the team-mates she has been paired with in the tournament, Azahara Muñoz is clear about what the main attraction of the Solheim Cup is for her: “The best thing is the team. I love playing in teams and I’ll take the experience, the dinners, the experiences, the games with my team-mates. I love everything that happens in the locker room. I talk to the Americans and they are not like that. We are an incredible team, everyone gets along great and we all support each other. It’s incredible how united the team is, how well you get along with the players, especially the ones you’re paired with”, Muñoz summarises.
Her absence from the team that won in Ohio in 2021 has allowed her to “enjoy” another facet of the competition and be aware of what the Solheim Cup drags on the news.
“Now there is more media impact around the competition and I’ve noticed it a lot watching it from the other side and following it on TV and social media. The fact that the final was so close also helped, of course”, she explained.
Now, Azahara Muñoz is expecting her first child, a circumstance that will cause an inevitable break in her career, but the Malaga native is clear that she will fight to be in the first Solheim Cup to be played in Spain.
“I don’t know how things will go because my life will be very different when I have my child, but I want to play the Solheim Cup in 2023. It would be my dream. It would probably be the last one, I’m getting older, but to play another Solheim Cup and to do it at home would be amazing, because that would mean I would have played well that year as well. I won’t have much time to qualify, but I’m going to do everything I can to be there.
With regard to the atmosphere at Finca Cortesín and the attractions that Andalucía and the Costa del Sol offer for the 2023 Solheim Cup to serve as a turning point, as was the Ryder Cup held in 1997 in Valderrama, Azahara is very clear: “The 1st tee of Finca Cortesin is going to be crazy and the Spanish are going to make a lot of noise,” says Muñoz. “On the other hand, Costa del Sol is a place that everyone wants to visit. When I say I’m from Marbella almost everyone in the United States knows where it is. It is a destination that people wants to visit, whether they come from Europe or America. Finca Cortesin is a great course and it’s going to be beautifully looked after. It’s a great course for match-play, it will bring a lot of excitement and it’s going to place Spain at the pinnacle of the game.
All that remains is to hope that Azahara Muñoz’s dream comes true. Hearing the crowd chanting her name on the 1st tee will be the best possible prologue to a historic edition of the Solheim Cup.