U.S. team relishes No. 1 seed

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Perhaps nothing can motivate competitive people quite like being made to look noncompetitive.

And that's what happened to the United States last August in Solheim Cup competition. It wasn't just that the Americans lost the Cup on home soil for the first time. It was that they were defeated so thoroughly that the event was over -- for all practical purposes -- a full day before it actually ended.

Playing the role of "futilely trying to catch up" was an embarrassing way to spend Sunday at the Solheim. If it had been any previous rendition of the USA vs. Europe women's golf showcase, the Americans would have had to wait two years for a chance at redemption.

But with the launch of the International Crown -- an eight-team, match-play competition debuting this week at Cave Valley Golf Club outside of Baltimore -- one quarter of the 2013 U.S. Solheim squad is in the chase for another team trophy. Stacy Lewis, Lexi Thompson, Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer will don the red, white and blue again and hope for a very different outcome from last summer.

There's reason to think that could be the case. American players have competed so well in the 11 months since the U.S. team was steamrolled at Colorado Golf Club that the United States grabbed the top seed for the International Crown, surpassing South Korea.

U.S. players have won 11 events on the LPGA Tour in 2014, Lewis is ranked No. 1 in the world, and it's safe to say lessons were learned the hard way last year. The Americans benefited from that individually and collectively.

"I think we would be kind of bummed if we weren't the No. 1 [seed]," Creamer said. "There's going to be a lot of people looking at how we manage things."

At least the LPGA hopes a lot of people will be looking on. The tour's top salesman, commissioner Mike Whan, says he is bullish on the International Crown's potential, but it's not going to have the standing of the Solheim instantly. That competition started in 1990 and has had a long time to grow.

That said, the International Crown has things going for it that the Solheim didn't when it began, including a much deeper global talent pool than women's golf had 24 years ago.

The American players at times have found it harder to stay afloat in that pool, but that's not the case in 2014. This year, Creamer got her first win since 2010. Lewis has won twice. Thompson, just 19, won a major for the first time. And Kerr -- who is now a mom and at age 36 the senior spokeswoman of the U.S. quartet here -- hasn't won this year but has nine top-10 finishes. She was third Sunday at the LPGA's tour stop in Ohio.

It's an interesting mix of personalities and backgrounds on the U.S. foursome. Then if you pan around and look at the rest of the International Crown competitors, that's even more the case.

There are sisters -- Moriya and Ariya Jutanugarn -- competing for Thailand. There are the Miyazatos from Japan -- Ai and Mika -- who are not related, although both were born in Okinawa.

The Australian team ranges in age from 18-year-old Minjee Lee to Karrie Webb, who is 39 and had her outstanding rookie season on the LPGA Tour the same year -- 1996 -- Lee was born.

Webb has long pined to be able to play in a team event like this. She's attended several Solheim Cups, often helping out her friends on the American team as their most talented "gopher." She'd drive the captain's golf cart and go fetch smoothies for the players. Now, she gets to wear the colors of her beloved Australia in a competition.

And while several of the golfers from the Spanish and Swedish teams have competed in the Solheim Cup for Europe, this will be different because they are playing specifically for their county, not a continent.

Of course, that's always been the case for the Americans. And a big part of what has given the Solheim its competitive dynamic was that for many years, the United States was the clear powerhouse.

As not just Europe but the rest of the world caught up -- and then some -- the Americans also had to get better. Everyone involved with the U.S. team at the Solheim will tell you there was a universal realization after last year's loss: The American players needed to work harder and commit more to realize their potential.

This year has reflected that commitment. Now a good chunk of the weight of the International Crown's success is on four of the Americans, but they don't act as if it's burdensome. They are the home team. Will they live up to their top seed?

"I think it's a great thing," Lewis said. "Everybody wants to get to No. 1 in the world, so why not be the No. 1-ranked team? I like when the spotlight's on me and the pressure's on. I think that's how we all feel."

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