Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 24, 2014

At The Crown, A Thursday Nightmare For Team USA

A NOTE TO READERS: There will be no post on Sunday. While July 27th is not yet a national holiday, it should be. Happy birthday to me! The regular posting schedule will resume next Thursday. As always, thanks for reading.

As regular visitors to this space know, this has been a resurgent year for American women on the LPGA Tour. Golf on both the men’s and women’s tours has long been a global sport, with international stars instantly recognizable and widely admired by American fans. But among the men over the decades for every Norman, Langer and Faldo, or in more recent times for every Scott, Kaymer and Rose, there have been any number of homegrown stars who have generally outshone their foreign counterparts.

But among the women, beginning with Annika Sorenstam’s arrival in 1995, the LPGA Player of the Year Award went to a non-American for 17 straight years. Whether it was Sweden’s Sorenstam, who dominated the sport for a decade, Britain’s Laura Davies, Australia’s Karrie Webb, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, or Chinese Taipei’s Yani Tseng, each of whom took their turn atop women’s golf, the most recognizable star of the LPGA wasn’t wearing red, white, and blue. During that same period the Vare Trophy, awarded to the player with the lowest stroke average for the season, also went to a foreign star ever year; and the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year was a non-American twelve times. Along the way a steady influx of Asian-born young women started to win tournament after tournament.

While a testament to the global reach of a sport that one can play from childhood to old age, the foreign domination inevitably created some marketing and publicity issues for a tour that is based in the U.S. There was an inkling of change in 2012, when then 27-year old Ohio native Stacy Lewis was named Player of the Year. Last year Lewis briefly ascended to the top of the women’s rankings, and at season’s end she took home the Vare Trophy.

One player alone couldn’t stop the international onslaught. Since 2008 South Korean women have won 49 LPGA tour events, more than any country in the world. Beginning with Se Ri Pak’s triumph at the 2001 Women’s British Open, the 16 majors won in this century by Korean members of the LPGA is also more than any other nation. Inbee Park won the first three majors of 2013, becoming just the fourth LPGA player to win three majors in a season. That run also allowed her to supplant Lewis atop the women’s rankings. In a sport where the stars seem to get younger and younger not every year but every week, 17-year old Lydia Ko of New Zealand is now ranked 2nd in the world with a pair of victories this year. For American women the low point surely came last August when a heavily favored Team USA was routed 18-10 by Team Europe at the Solheim Cup, the first time the Americans had lost the biennial matches on home soil.

Against that backdrop and really without warning, American women golfers have collectively shouldered their way back into prominence in 2014. Lewis gave the first sign, breaking Park’s major streak with a thrilling finish at last year’s Women’s British Open, where she birdied the final two holes on the Old Course at St. Andrews. This season she’s added three more wins to her professional resume. More important, she’s been joined by a bevy of other American women. Jessica Korda won the Tour’s opening event in the Bahamas, one of two victories for her so far this year. Paula Creamer broke a long winless streak with a dramatic 75-foot putt in a playoff at the HSBC Women’s Champions. Lexi Thompson, America’s own teenage star, captured her first major at Kraft Nabisco Championship. In all Americans have won 11 of the first 18 events on the LPGA calendar, more than in any year this century, and the season is just past its halfway mark. In addition, Thompson’s triumph at the Nabisco was followed by Michelle Wie’s enormously popular victory at the U.S. Women’s Open and Symetra Tour graduate Mo Martin’s improbable win at the Women’s British, giving Americans all three of the majors played so far.

Now comes the initial playing of the International Crown, a unique team event scheduled to be played every other year as a companion event to the Solheim Cup. Just as the PGA Tour developed the Presidents Cup as a way of involving international stars not eligible for the U.S. versus Europe format of the Ryder Cup, so the International Crown brings together players from around the globe. Eight teams of four began play on Thursday at the Caves Valley Golf Club outside of Baltimore. The field was determined and seeded by the combined world rankings of the top four players from each country. In another sign of renewal for American women, Team USA just edged out the team from the Republic of Korea for the top seed.

In a style similar to the recently concluded World Cup, the teams have been grouped into two pools for three days of round-robin four-ball match play. In each match a team earns two points for a win, one for a half, and zero for a loss. After the round-robin play finishes on Saturday, the top two teams from each pool plus one wild card entry, determined by a sudden death match among the third place teams, will advance to a day of individual matches on Sunday. By Sunday evening the team with the most points won over the four days of play can claim to be the top nation for women’s golf.

With the top seeding, playing on home turf, and in a season of repeated triumph, Team USA teed off on Thursday as the favorite. But by day’s end the results looked a lot more like the long years of American drought than like the past several months of rising accomplishment and expectations. Playing against Chinese Taipei, the #8 seed, the favored Americans were shut out. Candie Kung and Teresa Lu used the latter’s birdie two on the par-3 third hole to go one up on Creamer and Christie Kerr, and from there the underdogs never looked back. Another Lu birdie on the 15th closed out the Americans 4&3. For the match the Chinese Taipei team was a best ball 7-under par, while Creamer and Kerr were just barely in red numbers.

The two players ranked 1st and 5th in the world, Lewis and Thompson, could do no better. Against Tseng and Phoebe Yao the Americans fell behind on the very first hole. While they rallied behind a Thompson birdie at the second to square the match, Team USA fell behind again on the 4th hole. Another rally at the turn was followed by another slip on the 13th. One more rally sent the two teams to the home hole all square. But there Tseng buried a 13-foot birdie putt to give Chinese Taipei a 1-up victory.

For the day not only did the top seeded Americans win no points, they never led for even a single hole in either of their matches. They sit at the bottom of Pool A, the only team in the competition to be shut out on day one. The squad thought to be their closest competitor, the Republic of Korea, fared only slightly better, splitting two matches against 7th seeded Australia. The South Koreans may be the four golfers with more pressure on their shoulders than the Americans. The entire tournament is being broadcast live to a nation that has lately produced so many talented women golfers, despite the half day’s time difference that means much of the broadcast is in the middle of the night.

Of course there are still two more days of round-robin play and time for Team USA to rally. But there’s no denying the hole that the four Americans dug themselves into on Thursday, as telegraphed by their glum faces late in the day. In a season of American brilliance, Thursday was a shocking but perhaps overdue reminder that the LPGA and women’s golf remains a thoroughly international sport.

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Responses

  1. I don’t take my birthday off.

    The LPGA should send you a check.

    Don


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