SHOAL CREEK, Ala. – Go ahead. Do as much homework as you’d like. Make assumptions, make predictions and prognosticate till your heart’s content. You simply never know what you’re going to get in a golf championship.
The LPGA might be the definitive example. Coming to Alabama last week, the tour had conducted 13 tournaments and featured 13 different champions.
Certainly, the U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek wasn’t exactly how organizers from the U.S. Golf Association drew it up. Shoal Creek is one of Jack Nicklaus’ early designs, one that he recently refreshed for the big show. Annually, it’s among America’s finest, top 50 on all of the lists. But there are no exemptions from heavy rain and stormy weather.
And, with all due disrespect to the world’s best female players, the performance of the grounds crew at Shoal Creek was more dynamic than any of the golf. If the USGA ever conducts a major in the Florida Everglades, and plays the ball down, it’ll want the Birmingham Boys on speed dial.
That said, this Women’s Open had historic value. Twenty years ago, a 20-year-old Se Ri Pak survived an epic playoff battle with American amateur Jenny Chausiriporn and became the first Korean to win a women’s major. In terms of tangible evidence – and we’re not talking money here – that moment and Pak’s career far exceeds the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game.
South Koreans have become the dominant gene in the women’s game. Twenty-five Koreans were part of the Women’s Open field, and 14 made the cut. Dating to 2005, Koreans have won eight of these USGA shootin’ matches, including five of seven coming into 2018.
Need more? On Sunday, Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn held on to win the 73rd Women’s Open, overpowering the soft grounds with a smoking 3-wood and a solid all-around game (scores). But when she stumbled with a triple bogey on the 64th hole, she brought the memory of Arnold Palmer and 1966 into the conversation, and a Korean was nipping at her heels. Hyo-Joo Kim put the “open” sign back on the Open and forced Jutanugarn to earn it while trying to take it for herself. Not unlike Pak those many years ago, the 22-year-old Kim crashed the coronation, went to a playoff and produced more thrills for South Korea.
No, you never know what you’re going to get. But given what they got at Shoal Creek, few observers could have thought that Jutanugarn could surrender seven shots in nine holes before eventually winning her second major championship and ninth LPGA title.
“She's a spectacular player, obviously,” said Sarah Jane Smith, who had her dream of winning swamped by Jutanugarn over the last two rounds. “Her length is just one part of her game. She hits it a long way, but her short game is impeccable. She rolls the ball beautifully. She's just the whole package.”
In a matter of a couple of hours, in an unsightly manner, the package came unraveled. You went from wondering how many majors Jutanugarn might win to wondering whether she might ever win another. You went to marveling at the putting and the resilience of Kim.
Two Asians, head to head, sudden death, for the U.S. Women’s Open. Jutanugarn, also 22, who two years earlier had become the first Thai player to win a major championship with her victory in the Women’s British Open, became the first Thai winner of the U.S. Open. It had Pak written all over it.
From its inception in 1946 until Pak won in ’98, 44 of the first 52 winners of the Women’s Open were Americans. After ’98, it has been eight of 20 American winners, and one of them, Juli Inkster, accounts for two of those titles.
At Shoal Creek, the red, white and blue still was fashionable as 22 Americans made the cut. But a Yank never was truly on the cusp. The distortion isn’t a condemnation of the women’s game. It underlines a fact that the LPGA has accepted, a tradition that all started with Pak. The tour is a global product, and its largest single revenue stream is Korean television. It’s not counting Americans.
But at a U.S. Women’s Open, before a U.S. audience, in front of U.S. television cameras, the juxtaposition is remarkable. You have to go 23 spots deep into the Rolex Rankings to field a starting basketball team of U.S. players. Going no deeper, you can field two teams with four substitutes of Asian players.
College rosters are not altogether different, infused with Asians. It all started with Se Ri Pak, 20 years ago. The LPGA has adapted, but women’s golf in America has yet to respond.