Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2012

Lewis And Thompson, Present And Future Of U.S. Women’s Golf

With the MLB playoffs underway and the NFL season in full swing, this is a hard time for lesser sports to attract the attention of fans. While the NHL’s on-going effort at self-immolation is a novel way to address the problem, other sports gamely play on, even if not many people are watching. The Ryder Cup attracted its largest television audience in years, but the members of Team Europe were still giving each other champagne baths even as casual fans crossed golf off of their must-watch list until next April when the Tour returns to Augusta. But the PGA Tour still has a series of fall events. They attract smaller crowds and less notice but are still vitally important to the participants, especially those fighting to keep their playing privileges for next season by finishing in the top 125 on the final money list.

They are playing as well on the LPGA Tour, even if only Golf Channel junkies are aware of the fact. Well, actually they aren’t playing right now, as the women’s tour finds itself in the middle of one of the all too frequent gaps in its schedule. For 2012 the worst of these came in high summer, when sports fans might actually think of following golf. In the five weeks following the conclusion of the U.S. Women’s Open the LPGA calendar included just two events, and one of those was in France. Now the women are in the midst of a three-week break, and when they do tee it up again it will be for four tournaments in Asia followed by one in Mexico, before they finally return to the U.S. for the season-ending CME Group Titleholders event, held in Orlando in November. The globe-trotting schedule, and the decidedly international flavor to the list of tournament winners speaks to the broad appeal of the game and to the fact that players everywhere want to ply their trade on the U.S.-based tour. But as I’ve noted before, LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan’s efforts to increase the popularity of that tour in its home country can only be helped by more events on U.S. soil and by more wins by American golfers.

In the pursuit of those goals the 2012 LPGA season is offering golf fans some hopeful signs. The overall health of the women’s tour continues to improve, with the 27 official tournaments on the schedule an increase of four over last year. The 15 events in the U.S. are also two more than in 2011, and the most since 2009. To be sure the LPGA’s schedule is still well short of its 2008 peak. That year the women played 34 events, 24 of which were in the U.S., and total prize money topped more than $60 million compared with roughly $42 million this year. But after three straight years of fewer events both in the U.S. and in total, the movement is at last in the right direction. Ultimately of greater importance to the game’s popularity than the schedule, there is also movement in the right direction out on the course.

The final event played before the LPGA Tour’s current break was the Navistar LPGA Classic outside of Montgomery, Alabama. In each of the last two years the Navistar has offered signs of hope for American women’s golf. In 2011 the tournament was won by then 16-year old Lexi Thompson. At the time the victory made Thompson the youngest ever winner of a LPGA event, a mark bettered this year by 15-year old Korean amateur Lydia Ko at the Canadian Women’s Open. Thompson proved her win was no fluke when she triumphed at the Dubai Women’s Masters, a European Tour event, last December. This year she made the cut in all four LPGA majors, has three top-ten finishes, and currently ranks 23rd on the LPGA money list. The home-schooled Thompson combines tremendous length of the tee with an accurate iron game, appearing near the top of the Tour’s statistics in both driving length and greens in regulation. If she can improve her putting, and avoid the burnout that too often stunts the careers of young prodigies, she could well prove to be the American face of the LPGA Tour for a very, very long time.

But to become that face Thompson may find that she will have to supplant Stacy Lewis. Thompson was the runner-up at this year’s Navistar, and the player she wound up two strokes behind was the 27-year old Lewis. Lewis first drew notice when she recorded a victory of sorts as an amateur at a 2007 LPGA tournament in Arkansas. A deluge wiped out the event after only one round. Since the minimum of 36 holes weren’t played, the tournament wasn’t considered an official LPGA event; but Lewis, then a senior at the University of Arkansas, was declared the winner by virtue of her opening round 65.

Lewis turned professional in 2008 and topped the field at the LPGA’s qualifying tournament later that year. She won her first tournament, and first major, when she beat world #1 Yani Tseng by three strokes at the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship. That win was but prelude to the 2012 season, when Stacy Lewis has come into her own. Playing in all 21 events on the LPGA schedule to date, she has missed only one cut. She’s won three times, but the truly astonishing statistic is her top ten finishes, which number 14. Two-thirds of the time Lewis has finished in the top ten. She currently ranks 2nd in scoring average, 2nd in greens in regulation, and 1st in birdies, eagles, and rounds in the 60’s. She’s also 2nd on the Tour’s money list and has climbed to 2nd in the world rankings for women golfers, trailing only Tseng.

Her consistently strong play has given Lewis a wide lead in the race for LPGA Player of the Year. Unlike the men’s tour, where the equivalent award is based on player voting the LPGA’s prize is based on points won through top-ten finishes. At each event a player wins 30 points for winning, 12 for finishing runner-up, and progressively fewer down to a single point for a 10th place showing. With six events remaining Lewis leads Jiyai Shin 184-128. While Shin or another pursuer could still catch Lewis, the calendar is starting to work in the American’s favor. The symbolic importance of Lewis winning the award can’t be overstated.

For nearly three decades, from 1966 when the award was created through 1994, the LPGA Player of the Year was virtually always an American. Only Japan’s Ayako Okamoto broke the American string in 1987. The winners are the stars of generations past in American women’s golf, including Kathy Whitworth, JoAnne Carner, Judy Rankin, Nancy Lopez, Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan, Betsy King, and Pat Bradley. Then in 1995 Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam won the first of her eight Player of the Year awards, and began the period of international dominance of the LPGA Tour. In addition to Sorenstam the award has gone to England’s Laura Davies, Australia’s Karrie Webb, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, and for the past two years Taiwan’s Tseng, while Americans have been shut out.

In addition to being a positive sign for American women’s golf, a win by Lewis would also be an enormous personal triumph. Diagnosed at the age of 11 with scoliosis, Lewis wore a back brace 18 hours a day for 7 ½ years, removing it only to play golf. Finally as a high school senior she opted for spinal fusion surgery, facing the risk that one possible result could have been the end of her golfing career. For months after the surgery she could do nothing but chip and putt, which probably helps account for her deadly short game. From the depths of facing the possible end of her dream of being a professional golfer, Stacy Lewis has climbed all the way back to where she has the LPGA Tour’s top award firmly in her sights. On a Tour now known for its broad international appeal, a win by Lewis would be a great boon for the LPGA’s home base.

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Responses

  1. Long but worth reading post. Kudos. – Canoa Ranch, golf resorts Arizona


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