News & Opinion

Women’s Open faces tough sports rivals

SHOAL CREEK, Ala. – Sometimes, you can’t win for losing. Take the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open … and we don’t mean “please.” 

The USGA’s premier women’s event is preceding the men’s U.S. Open for the first time since 2001. The idea for the schedule move – announced in 2014 – was to position the women for ideal playing conditions and to avail their prestigious championship to some of the best venues in the South and Midwest. 

“Conducting the U.S. Women’s Open earlier in the year will allow the USGA to provide optimum playing conditions for the world’s best players across a broader variety of the country’s finest golf courses,” Daniel B. Burton, the USGA vice president and chairman of the Championship Committee, said at the time.

Thus, this new order of things has the best female players on the planet in suburban Birmingham this week, which just happens to be where Subtropical Storm Alberto is teeing it up. Birmingham loves the governor, not necessarily the rain. The storms arrived on Monday night and occupy the forecast for the next few days. Better conditions? The women are up Shoal Creek without a paddle. 

Of course, that’s nothing new. Bad weather has dogged the LPGA tour for weeks. But the sports radar isn’t favorable, either. The Women’s Open can be a terrific show, as can any sports event with a compelling story, the best performers and dramatic competition. Two years ago, the Women’s Open featured a playoff at CordeValle, with Brittany Lang capping a terrific comeback, with Anna Nordqvist absorbing a TV-accessed penalty, with color, controversy and emotion. 

Last year, dynamic elements surrounded the championship at Trump National Bedminster. President Donald Trump was in attendance, which did not go unnoticed. A 17-year-old amateur, Hye-Jin Choi, flirted with an improbable victory. Personable Shanshan Feng kept everyone entertained, and Sung Hyun Park prevailed in a tight finish. All in all, good stuff.  

But this week, in its new date, the Women’s Open has to battle for eyeballs. The Memorial Tournament is going on in Dublin, Ohio, not one of the men’s majors but certainly a captain. Shoal Creek is a Jack Nicklaus golf course, among his better pieces of work and a former home to the Regions Tradition, a PGA Tour Champions major (2011-2015).

The Memorial, however, is Jack’s baby, an event with considerable esteem and a fabulous field. Oh, and that field just happens to include Tiger Woods this year, for the first time since 2015. You may have heard of him.

That’s what the golf menu includes. Flip it over and you’ll find the Stanley Cup Finals in full swing, with the remarkable story of the Las Vegas Golden Knights drawing lots of attention. On Thursday, the NBA Finals, where some more familiar names reside – you know, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, guys like that. 

Therein lies part of the contentious climate for the LPGA, at least in America. Though the Women’s Open has its own panache and often delivers great theater, the genre lacks the star power to grab casual American sports fans and keep them. The days of Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam and even Lorena Ochoa are gone. The worddominant now comes with a short shelf life, often occupied by names that American audiences have trouble pronouncing. That’s not a political statement, not a comment on talent or credibility. It’s just a pronunciational fact of life.  

Yani Tseng had the reins for a while, but she isn’t at the 2018 Women’s Open. Tseng hasn’t won since 2012, ran out of exemptions and failed to qualify. Lydia Ko was a teenage wonder, and she won earlier this year. But it was her first victory in two years, as the former No. 1 has fallen out of the top 10 in the world rankings.

It’s a Catch-22 for women’s golf, as it can be for any game. The LPGA has conducted 13 events this season, with 13 different winners. The sport never has been more competitive. But parity begets anonymity, to a certain extent. Dominance isn’t invited to the party, and household names are hard to establish. The women spend most of their time on Golf Channel, while the men occupy network television and ESPN. This isn’t apples to apples.

Then again, the LPGA defines awareness in slightly different terms. It holds 34 events in 14 countries. It has transitioned into a global product, based in the U.S. market but not entirely dependent on it. It’s not asking for handouts.

With a historically significant golf course and a new location on the schedule, the U.S. Women’s Open warrants the spotlight this week. But sometimes …   

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD