News & Opinion

LPGA spans globe with youthful appeal

Professional golf has had a “world” tour for a while now, and it’s called the LPGA. 

There has been overwhelming evidence of this during the past year or so. In 2016, there were only two American winners – the fewest ever – in 33 official events, and the medals in the Summer Olympics went to players from South Korea, New Zealand and China. Brittany Lincicome is the only U.S. golfer to take home a trophy in the six events held in 2017. Going into the first major championship of the year, the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson (No. 9) is the only American in the top 10 of the Rolex Rankings. Among the top 20 players, 10 nations on four continents are represented.

Not only are there no walls in the women’s game, there isn’t so much as a picket fence. Whether mathematical, cultural or cyclical, this is the way it is. 

On a conference call in advance of the ANA Inspiration, which begins Thursday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Golf Channel announcer Jerry Foltz, who is adept at calling the action, took a shot at describing the current competitive landscape, which is as international as it is youthful.

“When I used to watch as a fan, that mattered to me,” Foltz said of Americans winning. “But now that I’m kind of invested in the LPGA as a product, I don’t look at (home country) flags anymore. They’re all incredible players, and to me it’s an honor to be able to watch them, whether or not they speak perfect English or whether or not I have any idea who they are when I go follow them for the first time. They’re amazing players, and I really couldn’t care less about which flag is next to their name.”

That is an honest assessment from someone who is paid to pay attention, but it could just as well have been the viewpoint of a spectator who has been to an LPGA tournament and been taken by the skill and grace of these players from different points on the globe. A 26-year-old from South Korea whom you might not have heard of, Mirim Lee, won last week’s Kia Classic by six strokes, closing with a 65 Sunday. 

“I think American fans are sophisticated enough they want to see the best in the world … compared to it has to be an American on the board,” said veteran broadcaster Mike Tirico, who will return to the TV booth at the ANA this week. “As our world has shrunk and things are closer to us, I think it doesn’t have to be wrapped in red, white and blue for us to enjoy and watch it.”

As a fulcrum for women’s golf, the LPGA arguably matters now as much as it did in the tour’s formative years when the players, despite paltry purses, worked so hard to promote it (bit.ly/2nJEDGL). The number of female juniors has almost doubled in two decades, to a third of that segment of the game. In addition to developmental programs such as LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, The First Tee and PGA Junior League, many of the top faces of the pro game – notably, top-ranked Lydia Ko, 19, of New Zealand – are young and serve as drawing cards for girls. 

Tween and teen golfers no doubt will be intrigued by the presence in the ANA Inspiration field of 14-year-old American Lucy Li, who won the AJGA’s ANA Junior Inspiration to earn an exemption. Li set a record by qualifying for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open when she was only 11 and played with beyond-her-years poise at Pinehurst No. 2. 

I don’t think Li will be doing a cannonball as the victor late Sunday afternoon, but you never know. In 2004, when Michelle Wie was 14 and the event was known as the Kraft Nabisco Championship, she finished fourth. One of these years, the ways things are going, Poppie’s Pond will be a kiddie pool.

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1