Hope for the Americans on the LPGA Tour

The numbers don’t paint a pretty picture of the state of American women’s golf. In fact, they are almost mind-boggling.

Consider that before Cristie Kerr won two of the last three tournaments, including Sunday’s LPGA Championship, American players had won just one of the previous 25 events. That included a run of 17 straight wins for international players from May to November of 2009.

This represents the extreme form of a trend that has been going on for more than a decade—Americans haven’t accounted for more than 11 wins in a season since 1999. First came the two-woman wrecking crew of Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam and Australia’s Karrie Webb. Then Se Ri Pak set off an explosion in women’s golf in Korea, a country that has overwhelmed the LPGA Tour with its depth as well as quality at the top. For good measure, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa did her dominating thing for a while.

A look at the 2010 money list tells the story. Just three of the top 15 on the list are Americans. And it’s not just strength at the top. The depth of the pool of strong international players is shown by the fact that just nine of the top 40 are Americans.

Is this surprising? Not really, when you consider this: How often do you see a teenage girl playing golf? Chances are, very rarely. While teenage boys play the game in fairly large numbers, flooding colleges with good players, many of whom eventually find their way to the Tour, that’s not the case with girls. Women’s college golf has to rely on recruiting international players. That brings many Europeans and girls from other parts of the Americas to the U.S., and many of them end up playing on the LPGA Tour.

Except perhaps for Sorenstam-fueled growth in Sweden, you wouldn’t say that golf is especially popular for European teenage girls, either. But with a European women’s tour that is not as strong as its men’s tour—there aren’t enough tournaments or high enough purses to make a good living there—European women gravitate to the LPGA Tour.

The women’s tour is stronger in Japan, which, combined with the language barrier, keeps more Japanese staying at home, though the very best usually try the LPGA Tour. But then there’s the 900-pound gorilla of women’s golf right now, South Korea. That’s the one place where teenage girls are flocking to the game, often at the behest of parents who have dreams of their daughter’s success. Along with a strong work ethic, it’s a recipe for flooding what is essentially a fairly weak market of young women golfers in America with an influx of Koreans.

With the strength of Asian women’s golf, the fact that the LPGA has become a de facto world tour, and the lack of a strong pipeline of young American players, look for the international flavor to continue. But there’s one area where things look a bit more hopeful for the U.S.

Remarkably, the United States has not produced a Player of the Year since Beth Daniel in 1994 or a money-list leader since Betsy King in 1993. Those honors have been owned by Sweden’s Sorenstam, Australia’s Webb, Mexico’s Ochoa, England’s Laura Davies, and Korea’s Jiyai Shin.

The retirement of Ochoa (like that of Sorenstam before her) has left the door open for a new No. 1. Indeed, Kerr took over the top spot in the Rolex World Ranking with her LPGA Championship victory. She’s second on the money list to Japan’s Ai Miyazato, who has won four times, but Kerr is within $60,000 because she has played more consistently.

Kerr was certainly impressive in winning the LPGA by 12 strokes, the largest victory in a women’s major since the 1949 U.S. Women’s Open. She’s always carried herself with the outward confidence of somebody who thinks she can be No. 1, but it must be said that her play down the stretch of big tournaments has not always matched her bravado. Kerr gave away the Women’s Open last year and also missed a good chance at the Kraft Nabisco (she does own the 2007 Women’s Open title as well as the 2010 LPGA among 14 victories). She finished second on the money list last year, so she doesn’t need to step it up all that much in order to reach the top.

Nor is she the sole American with a reasonable chance of becoming No. 1. There’s Michelle Wie, of course, who seemed inexorably headed in that direction at the ages of 15 and 16 when she was finishing in the top five in about half of the LPGA events she entered. Then came the horrible slump, brought on by injury and extended by a loss of confidence.

Wie eventually re-discovered her game—but not quite the magic of her early-teen years. Since joining the Tour full-time in 2009, she has morphed into a steady player, one who can be counted on to finish around 20th most weeks and occasionally contend. Only once has she come through with a victory, that coming near the end of the 2009 season. So far this year, she’s 15th on the money list. That’s OK, but not what we had in mind for her five years ago (then again, it’s better than her detractors would have predicted two years ago). Still, she’s only 20 years old and with a few more refinements could reach the top.

A third American with a real chance at Player of the Year and money list titles in the near future is Paula Creamer. Probably not this year, though, since a thumb injury caused her to withdraw from the first tournament of the season and miss the next seven. That’s on the heels of a winless 2009 when she was plagued by a mysterious stomach ailment for much of the year. But let’s not forget that Creamer won eight times in her first four years on Tour, 2005-8, and three times finished in the top three on the money list. If she hadn’t joined the Tour at a time when first Sorenstam and then Ochoa were dominating, she might have claimed a money title already. And she doesn’t even turn 24 until next month.

Another member of what promises to be a strong generation of American golfers is Morgan Pressel, who just turned 22. Based on her first four years on the Tour, she’s not as much of a threat to be No. 1 (best money-list rank of ninth) but looks poised to be a solid player for years to come (never out of the top 25 on the money list so far). And here’s a good time to give her some credit for winning a tournament in Japan with a strong international field earlier in the year in the midst of the American drought on the LPGA Tour.

Of course, there’s been so much buzz about these players for several years that there might be a sense of disappointment that they haven’t done more to stem the international stampede to the LPGA winner’s circle. But it’s good to remember how young they still are. Now that they have some experience, and Ochoa is out of the way, it could be their time to shine, along with the 32-year-old Kerr.

The tide of Asian women shows no signs of abating. They will continue to have strength in numbers, and there are three with a good chance at challenging for No. 1—Korea’s Shin, Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, and Japan’s Ai Miyazato. But there’s a good chance that, for a change, there will be some Americans keeping them company at the top.

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