American rebirth lifts LPGA Tour
For you LPGA fans who have been asking where the Americans are, I think I have a favorable answer for you.
They are rising in the world rankings quickly and are on their way to being back in a big-time way. I have been critical of the lack of American production in the win column -- in majors, in particular -- and I can tell you I am thrilled to be writing this.
During the 2012 U.S. Women's Open, I was asked on air why I thought American women were not keeping up with the winning pace set by the rest of the world. I responded simply: I thought they were getting outworked. I saw players spending a lot of time at the course, but not in a focused and productive way, and it really disturbed me. Face time at the course does not necessarily translate to success on the course, and I was seeing way too much of that.
But for whatever reason or reasons -- perhaps they were spurred by losing two straight Solheim Cup matches, including not winning a single session in the second -- the American women are winning again and filling up the top rungs of the world rankings.
Failure, fear and finances can be powerful motivators regardless of your profession. Maybe it is a combination of all these factors, but players from the USA have won half of the LPGA events in 2014. This can do nothing but help the LPGA's product. While it is a truly global tour, the association is still domestically based, and it helps when Americans win. Period.
Let's take a closer look at the evidence:
In February 2006, when the initial Rolex World Rankings were released, four American players were in the top 10 (led by Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie), five Americans were in the top 15, and seven were in the top 20. Japan was second with two players in the top 10, four in the top 15, and five in the top 20. South Korea was third with two in the top 10, three in the top 15, and four in the top 20.
By April 2012, the U.S. decline was at full speed, with three players in the top 10, five in the top 15, and five in the top 20. South Korea had lapped both the Americans and Japanese, with four players in the top 10, six in the top 15, and eight in the top 20.
Include major championship victories in this bleak picture, and the questions reached a fever pitch. By the end of 2013, Americans had won just four of the previous 20 majors, and were shut out entirely in 2012. Stacy Lewis won two of those majors, while Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr won one each. The questions were justified.
Now let's look at today.
The U.S. put on a massive late rally to capture the No. 1 seed over South Korea for the upcoming International Crown. The most recent Rolex World Rankings have three Americans, led by No. 3 Lewis and No. 6 Lexi Thompson, in the top 10. Six Americans are in the top 15 and seven in the top 20, nearly back to 2006 numbers.
The South Koreans counter with two in the top 10, three in the top 15, and six in the top 20. Most shocking of all may be the virtual disappearance of the Japanese women -- not a single player is in the top 20. In fact, the highest-ranked Japanese player is Mika Miyazato at No. 34.
So how does this translate to better business opportunities for the LPGA overall -- more specifically, in North America? Three new events have been added in the U.S. alone, including this week's Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in San Francisco. Half a dozen events have been renewed, including long-standing tournaments in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Arizona, and there is a new title sponsor for the Canadian Pacific Women's Open. That is impressive. VERY impressive.
What about television ratings and Web presence? Overall LPGA viewership is up 14 percent this year compared to 2013. North American LPGA viewership is up 27 percent year-to-date over last year, and the Kraft Nabisco Championship final round was the LPGA's most-watched final round that was not a Solheim Cup since 2009.
Having Thompson and Wie in the final pairing was phenomenal, and it translated to lots of eyeballs for the LPGA. Wie's win in Hawaii last week was a big watch, as well, generating the best numbers since 2009 for an event that was neither a major nor a Solheim Cup. LPGA.com is showing similar growth, with a 20 percent increase in traffic among U.S. fans.
I've said for a couple of years that the LPGA is a tour on the rise, and this is the evidence that so many have been looking for. Be mindful that the South Koreans have four players, including LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame member Se Ri Pak, sitting right outside the top 20, but kudos to the Americans for making this enormous move. They are back!