Spain first to wear International Crown
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Spaniards danced and sang, "Olé, olé, olé, olé!" They were the winners of the first International Crown, the LPGA's newest team event that debuted this week at Caves Valley Golf Club outside of Baltimore.
From the perspective of these four confident, enthusiastic mujeres jovenes who grew up playing together, this inaugural event could not have gone any better.
"It was way beyond what I expected," said Beatriz Recari, at 27 the oldest of the quartet that also included Azahara Munoz (26), Carlota Ciganda (24) and Belen Mozo (25). "I truly believed in my team, that we could hold this trophy. But just the experience and the feel of it. ... I was fortunate to be a part of the Solheim Cup, and it was the same. It's just that feeling when you win as a team. I'm just going to say 'AWESOME,' in capital letters and a smiley face."
That would counter the mostly long faces worn by the members of Team USA after they were eliminated on Saturday. Certainly, this was a wonderful event for Spain, a nation that has committed to developing young golfers of both genders. The Europeans have won the past two Solheim Cups and the past two Ryder Cups, and Spaniards have been part of all of those.
But from the big-picture view, how should we evaluate the first rendition of the International Crown? It's impossible to ignore the most obvious issue to the U.S. audience: That the American team did not advance to Sunday's singles play.
After their loss to South Korea on Saturday in a playoff that lasted one hole, the American players grumbled about the format of the entire event and the playoff itself, which they thought was confusing to fans.
But any such grousing -- the format undoubtedly will get at least a little tweaking for 2016 -- really should have come in private. Because the Americans just looked cranky bringing that up publicly.
The bottom line is the Americans -- whose four players are all ranked in the top 12 in the world, including No. 1 Stacy Lewis -- lost three of four matches against fairly big underdogs: Thailand, whose top-ranked player is No. 28, and Taiwan, whose top-ranked player is No. 44.
It was a lot like what happened during Saturday afternoon play at the Solheim Cup this past August. The eight players the Americans sent out then had a combined 36 LPGA victories; Europe's eight had a combined four wins on tour. Yet the Euros swept all four matches and gave themselves what proved to be an insurmountable lead going into singles play.
Considering how well the Americans have competed on the LPGA tour in 2014 -- winning 11 events, including all three majors thus far -- there really isn't any worry about how strong U.S. women's golf is. The issue is why they haven't performed better as a team in their past three competitions, in losing the 2011 and '13 Solheim Cups and not even making the final day here.
The U.S. players say they enjoy the team events, but those take place just one week a year. That adds to the randomness of potential results, as does the fact that it's match play, which gives underdogs a better chance at upsets.
But the Americans have to ask themselves why they swept Spain -- the eventual champion -- on the second day of pool play here but didn't compete better against Taiwan and Thailand. Were the Americans just more "up" to play a Spanish squad they knew would be a tough team? Did the Spaniards, who made no secret of how much they wanted to win, and some of the other nations just have a stronger emotional investment in this competition than the United States?
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan was asked if he was disappointed the United States wasn't playing on Sunday. Clearly, it would have boosted attendance, though the crowds really weren't bad for a first-time event.
Whan opted to focus on other positives. For one, he loved the emotion of the playoff between the Koreans and Americans on Saturday. If both teams had been assured of moving on, he said, it wouldn't have had the same drama.
"Would I like there to be an American-Korean playoff on Sunday? Sure," Whan said. "But I really don't think that [the Americans not playing Sunday] lessens the event. I think it ratchets it up a notch. Sometimes when you take something for granted, losing it is the most exciting thing that can happen. I have a hard time saying I'm going to critique the format so a country or two finds its way to Sunday."
Whan is in charge of a truly international tour, which this year holds 15 of its 32 tournaments outside the United States. Sponsors and television coverage from other nations, especially those in Asia, matter a great deal. Having South Korea (which finished third, behind Sweden), Japan and Thailand on the final day had its benefits for this event, which is likely to be held in an Asian nation in the coming years.
The next International Crown, though, will remain in the United States. That will be at Rich Harvest Farms outside of Chicago, a course that hosted the 2009 Solheim Cup. What might be different for the 2016 International Crown?
Perhaps the timing of when the nations and team members officially qualify. Whan said the need to secure TV and sponsorship deals overseas was the reasons participants of this inaugural event were selected as early as they were. The eight nations competing were set at the end of the 2013 LPGA season, and the four competitors for each team were determined by the top four in the world rankings as of March 31.
For the United States, that meant Michelle Wie -- who has won twice this year, including at the U.S. Women's Open -- wasn't on the International Crown team. If the squad had been named a month ago, she would have been here.
Whan said he anticipates the team members being named closer to the event in 2016, as the International Crown will be more established the second time around.
Viewers might have found it a little more difficult to follow this competition with eight teams taking part, as opposed to the two sides that compete in the Solheim, Ryder and Presidents cups. Still, the LPGA's goal was for this to be noticeably different than any other pro golf team competition, and in that, it succeeded.
For the most part, players really seemed to enjoy themselves at this event and very much appreciated the chance to play for their country.
"At the Solheim Cup, there is really no interaction between the teams," Spain's Munoz said. "This week was totally different. There were 32 of us, and some players we don't even know because they play in Japan or in Europe. Everybody was so nice to each other. It was just fun."
As friendly as the Spaniards might have been, though, they meant business when it came time to compete. Recari predicted they would win the event, in fact. The Spaniards were furious after losing both their matches to the United States on Friday. But they regrouped that night and bonded over games of ping-pong. Then they roared back to win both matches against Taiwan on Saturday and then all four singles matches Sunday.
They are proud and excited about what this means for Spanish women's golf. Spain has had several male golf stars, such as Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia. There were four Spaniards on the 1985 European team that won the Ryder Cup for the first time. The 1997 Ryder Cup was held at Valderrama in Spain, and the winning European team there was captained by Ballesteros. That competition seemed to take the profile of the Ryder Cup up another level.
Back in 1997 was also about the time Recari, Munoz, Ciganda and Mozo were youngsters starting in golf. They all got to know each other in junior competitions. Munoz and Ciganda both went to Arizona State, where they were part of the 2009 NCAA championship team that won its title at this same Caves Valley course.
"We already had good memories about this venue," Munoz said.
Now they have even more, as the four leave Caves Valley with their own sterling silver crowns as trophies.
Meanwhile, the United States' memories of this event will be less pleasant but perhaps motivating. In just over a year, they'll play in the Solheim Cup in Germany. Maybe some of the disappointment here will fuel the U.S. team there. The Americans already know that -- led by the Spaniards and Swedes -- the Solheim competition is going to be very tough.