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Pepper welcomed back into Solheim Cup circle

Thursday - 8/15/2013, 3:34pm  ET

United States' assistant captain Laura Diaz talks on her radio as she watches the United States team during a practice round for the Solheim Cup golf tournament, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, in Parker, Colo. The Solheim Cup, a biennial event between teams representing Europe and the United States, starts Friday. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writer

PARKER, Colo. (AP) -- Never mind that Dottie Pepper's comment about "chokin' freakin' dogs" inspired the U.S. women in their stirring, come-from-behind victory at the Solheim Cup in 2007.

Those three little words nearly cost Pepper so much of what she had achieved over her distinguished career: Her reputation. The friendships. Her standing as America's heart and soul in the premier team event in women's golf, to say nothing of a future role as captain that had been all but preordained.

Pepper spent six long years in exile because of those words, uttered during the 2007 broadcast when she thought she was off the air. But after being coaxed back into the fold with a fence-mending move by current U.S. captain Meg Mallon, she is back wearing red, white and blue for one of the biggest weeks in her sport.

"Meg did something nobody else had probably thought of doing in the past," Pepper said Wednesday, two days before the United States begins the quest to regain the cup it lost to Europe two years ago in Ireland.

It was in 2007 in Sweden that Pepper became a pariah to the team she had led not so long before.

While doing color commentary for the Golf Channel, Pepper got frustrated watching the Americans miss putt after putt that turned a couple of likely wins into disappointing ties. Thinking the telecast had gone to commercial after one particularly galling miss, Pepper called the Americans "chokin' freakin' dogs."

Word of the insult spread quickly, and it turned out to be the fuel that triggered a huge American comeback in the rain and wind of Halmstad, Sweden. After the U.S. won 16-12, most of the talk was about Pepper, and how her inadvertently aired words motivated a number of players and captains she had once called friends.

"Hurtful, very, very hurtful to all of us on the team," then-assistant captain Beth Daniel, a contemporary of Pepper's, called the comments after the 2007 victory was sealed. "Dottie's been there. She knows what it's like. Even if she said it off the air, it was ill-spirited."

Though Pepper has never been known for hiding her emotions, or her opinion, the words did come as something of a shock. Pepper, after all, lists her 13 Solheim Cup victories -- more than any American besides Juli Inkster -- at the top of an accomplished career that also includes two major championships.

In earlier times, she made it a habit of getting under the Europeans' skin. They once rigged up a "Dottie Pepper punching bag" to take out their aggression on the woman who went 10-1 from 1994 to 1998, when the U.S. won the cup three straight times.

Then suddenly, it was Pepper inflicting pain on her former team.

"The older you get, the better you used to be," 2007 captain Betsy King said in the aftermath of the win. "You think you were perfect, and you don't remember anything."

What hardly anyone knew at that time was that Pepper had tried to apologize almost immediately after she found out her words had made the air. The problem was that producers on the Golf Channel didn't tell her until six or seven hours after they'd aired. By that time, the story had taken on a new, inaccurate life of its own, including the rumor that Pepper had used an expletive to describe her one-time teammates. It took nearly five years to patch things up.

"It did hurt me," Pepper said. "What hurt the most was that I went to the players that night and was told, 'We don't want to talk to you.' They slammed the door in my face. That's the part people don't know. They think I just blew it off."

Shortly after she was named the 2013 Solheim Cup captain, Mallon set about repairing the damage. And it would take someone of her stature -- universally well-respected and with an impressive 13 Solheim Cup victories of her own -- to do this job.

"When I came home and listened to the telecast and heard how she said it, I started laughing," Mallon said. "Because I know Dottie and I knew she had inserted herself in that match and that's what she would've called herself in that match. So I got it. From that point on, I felt like, OK, this is a little silly."

It was no small thing, however, to sell Pepper's return to the American team -- or to convince Pepper that coming back was in everybody's best interest.

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