Luke DeCock

June 18, 2014

DeCock: American flag flying high again over women’s golf

An influx of talented young Americans has re-energized the LPGA Tour and helped turn back what threatened to be a demographic takeover by South Korean players.

At a meeting before an LPGA tournament in Virginia last month, arriving players were greeted by large pictures of the tour winners so far. Walking in, Stacy Lewis and Jessica Korda, two of the eight Americans in the top 17 in the Rolex World Rankings, did a collective double-take.

On a tour that has been dominated by foreigners for a decade, South Koreans in particular, five of the 10 winners whose pictures hung on the wall were Americans. Lewis and Korda were both represented. A sixth, Lizette Salas, went on to win that week. Korda would soon win a second and Lewis would win another as well to claim the world No. 1 ranking. It was visual confirmation of a trend that has been a long time coming in women’s golf, and not a moment too soon as far as the health of the game here is concerned.

“It’s a great thing for this tour,” said Lewis, the 2012 tour player of the year. “We’ve needed it over the last few years to kind of get sponsors on board and get people paying attention to us, people writing about us, people watching.”

They are now, thanks to a cadre of exciting young Americans. Michelle Wie is closer than ever to achieving upon her breathtaking potential at 24. Lexi Thompson played in the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles as a 12-year-old and is now 19 and one of the tour’s longest hitters. Korda, the daughter of tennis pro Petr Korda, is 21. Salas is 24. More are waiting in the wings.

And there’s still the slightly older core of major winners like Lewis and Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer, relative veterans at 29 and 25 and 27 respectively, while Cristie Kerr, the 2007 Open champion, is still among the tour’s top players at 36.

“It’s great, great for women’s golf, great for women’s sports in general,” Creamer said. “We’ve been asked for many years now, ‘Where are the Americans?’ We’re here. We’ve always been here, just a little bit outnumbered at times out there. But there’s a lot of great juniors coming through the ranks as well and we see a lot of hope.”

“Things happen in waves. It’s just the way that it works,” Pressel said. “Right now we’re on a bit of an upswing as American golf.”

It’s more than an upswing. Six of the top 13 players in the Rolex World Rankings are Americans. For the first time in years, there are only two South Koreans in the top 10. Lewis was the first American to win player of the year since Beth Daniel in 1994 and Americans have won two of the past four majors. The American presence in women’s golf hasn’t been this strong in years. Decades, even.

“Never since I’ve been on tour,” said Australian veteran Karrie Webb, who won the Women’s Open at Pine Needles in 1999. “We’ve really been in need of that the last four or five years. I think media are paying a lot more attention to it now, but I think American golf’s been healthy for four or five years. It’s good there are some even younger Americans coming along.”

Women’s golf as a professional game was built largely, and almost exclusively, by Americans. From 1972 to 1994, Americans won 64 of 72 majors. By the 1990s, top players were coming from Sweden (Annika Sorenstam) and Australia (Webb) and England (Laura Davies), but the real tectonic shift followed Se Ri Pak’s playoff win at the 1998 Women’s Open, launching a golf craze in South Korea that hasn’t abated yet.

This demographic shift threatened to overwhelm the LPGA Tour, with wave after wave of Korean teenagers crossing the Pacific – and winning. By the last time the Women’s Open was played in North Carolina, in 2007, North American sponsors were losing interest and Wie, the game’s great American hope, was mired in the worst slump of her career to date, pulling out of a tournament that spring in mid-round, unable to hold back her tears.

Thompson’s prodigious appearance at Pine Needles put her at the vanguard of the American response, and the tide has finally started to turn – not a moment too late for the LPGA Tour.

“I think we’ve lost a lot of our fan base, unfortunately due to the influx of Asians who have come on tour and people saying, ‘You know, I just don’t enjoy watching them,’ ” said Donna Andrews, a six-time winner on tour from 1993-98 and an instructor at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club. “So if we can build our fan base back up and get people back out and watching all the great Americans who are playing, I think it would be great for the tour.”

The American resurgence has not occurred in a vacuum. If the Korean influx threatened the tour’s financial health, it also raised the bar for established players. If there was one thing the Korean players tended to have in common, it was their dedication to practice. The rest of the women’s golf world was forced to answer.

“I know the work ethic has changed out here tremendously, over the last 20 years I’ve been out here,” said Travis Wilson, a two-decade LPGA Tour caddie now working for Lewis. “It was a lot more casual when I first started. Players like Stacy worked hard to be where she is. There’s a deeper talent pool, too. You have to be on from week to week. You can’t just have a couple good weeks.”

Whatever the reasons, the LPGA Tour is reaping the benefits now. It has added 12 new title sponsors and 11 new marketing partners in the past three years, while television ratings are up 14 percent over last year and at the highest level overall since 2009, while live coverage on the Golf Channel continues to increase.

And yet, for those accustomed to the historic dominance of American players in women’s golf, it still isn’t enough.

“There still aren’t that many good Americans,” said Pine Needles owner Peggy Kirk Bell, one of the pioneers of women’s golf. “I hope there will be more Americans, but I doubt it. We might have 10 good Americans.”

The economic and political reality is simple: While great golfers make for great golf, no matter their nationality, for women’s golf to thrive, it needs American stars. At the moment, the LPGA Tour has them, with more potentially on the way.

“I think we’re all starting to come into our own,” Korda said. “Hopefully we can bring more young Americans up, and inspire more girls to play.”

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