The shaky state of the women's golf game in America
NAPLES, Fla. -- If an American wins the CME Group Tour Championship, it will be an upset.
As another LPGA seasons ends this week at Tiburon Golf Club, that's not an insult but a fact.
Whether someone from the United States has her hands on a trophy late on Sunday afternoon, it has been a historically weak season for American women golfers on a tour founded and based in this country. Only two Americans have won LPGA events during 2016, Lexi Thompson at the Honda LPGA Thailand and Brittany Lang at the U.S. Women's Open. The fewest LPGA titles claimed in a season by Americans was four in 2011.
"We are outnumbered out here," says 39-year-old American Cristie Kerr, the defending CME defending champion, "and that's what people seem to lose sight of a lot. We do our best and carry the whole country on our backs, and hopefully people can realize that."
That the LPGA arguably is sport's best melting pot -- there are 127 players from 28 countries other than the United States on tour in 2016 -- is no news flash. As long ago as the late 1990s, there were dozens of international LPGA members, and Stacy Lewis (2012, 2014) is the only American to win Rolex Player of the Year in two decades.
Yes, the United States won the 2015 Solheim Cup over Europe and won the 2016 UL International Crown in a field that included teams from Asia, the hotbed of women's golf. But the paucity of American individual success is still jarring. Ranked fifth in the world, Thompson, 21, is the only American in the top 10, with Lewis (13th) and Gerina Piller (18th) the only other U.S. golfers in the top 20.
"I find it a little scary," says Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin, a star player in the 1960s and 1970s. "I almost hate to say anything to put more pressure on the American players, because I think they feel it. There is no doubt it's a sticking point. I am really hopeful that there are big crops of juniors coming up in the U.S. that might be the next wave."
Efforts to boost youth participation in the United States are underway and growing, with 60,000 girls now involved in the USGA-LPGA Girls' Golf program. The PGA of America's Junior Golf Leagues are popular too, with 36,000 participants. The same goes for the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, a skills initiative from the Masters Tournament, USGA and PGA of America in which finalists compete at Augusta National Golf Club.
But growing the game, to use the biz-speak term that has filled so many conversations in the golf industry in recent years, doesn't necessarily translate into emerging elite American young women who can compete toe-to-toe with international competitors.
"There is very little depth in America right now in the women's game, not a big pool," says veteran instructor David Leadbetter, who coaches world No. 1 Lydia Ko, the Korea-born New Zealander. "Whether pros or amateurs, if you took the 10 best 18-year-olds from the U.S. and South Korea and had a competition, I guarantee you it would be a complete whitewash. That's just the fact of the matter."
Talented female golfers in other parts of the world frequently are immersed in golf at younger ages through organized channels of a national scope -- federations or associations charged with developing and supporting young talent. No existing American entity has that responsibility.
"It really is a missing link here," says Hall of Famer and 31-time LPGA winner Juli Inkster. "Places are trying to grow the game but not really grow individuals. We don't have a federation to push our young athletic girls into golf, and we've come to a point where we need a federation to really grow top-level golfers. I'm not saying our girls aren't good, because they are. But they've grown up in a different type of golf atmosphere."
That overseas atmosphere, particularly in Asia, often is an intense and focused approach.
"They're starting earlier and working harder," veteran instructor Jim McLean says. "You've got to give the South Koreans credit -- they start the girls early and they train. It's P.C. in America to say you want a well-rounded child, you want them to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But if you look at the greatest people in the world, the greatest achievers, they're not well-rounded, they're laser-focused."
None of the women in the current top 10 of the world rankings went to college (although several have or are taking online courses). "Many players overseas look at it from an occupation standpoint, a jobs standpoint," Leadbetter says, "Look at Lydia: When she was 5, her mother decided that she was going to be a golfer. They're almost pros when they're 16, and they're fully mature tour players when they're 18 or 19. I'm not belittling anyone who goes to college, but whether college prepares them for the tour is another question."
The globalization is well underway on American campuses. The University of Washington won the 2016 NCAA women's golf championship with two players from New Zealand, one from England, one from China and one from the United States. This year, longtime coach Mary Lou Mulflur's team has a similar international makeup with a majority of players from abroad.
"We have certain things we look for in a kid, and it just so happens of late people we bring in are international kids," Mulflur says. "It's a combination of things, but if you put us coaches in a room, we would probably say there is more appreciation for the opportunity. Most other countries, you either turn pro and become a golfer or you go to school and become a doctor, accountant or whatever. It takes a lot of nerve to move 5,000 miles from home to where you don't know anybody. The sacrifices people make are quite great."
I find it a little scary. I almost hate to say anything to put more pressure on the American players, because I think they feel it. There is no doubt it's a sticking point. I am really hopeful that there are big crops of juniors coming up in the U.S. that might be the next wave.Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin, a star player in the 1960s and 1970s
Neil Coulson is the director of golf at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where aspiring athletes in nine sports go to school and train. Approximately 80 percent of the female junior golfers are from outside the United States. A native of England, Coulson spent 15 years as a senior executive for IMG Golf in Asia before taking his current position.
"I think there is a different work ethic in Asia," Coulson says of youth golfers in that part of the world. "There is less of a need for instant feedback than required in the West. If juniors over there can understand the goal, they will try to achieve the goal even if it takes a long time. They are willing to work longer to achieve a goal than a Western child generally would."
Overseas, developing players also tend to experience less than ideal conditions, things that can contribute to toughness and creativity.
"When you look at the way other countries train," Mulflur says, "they don't always have the most perfect practice facility or every blade of grass cut perfectly, and greens that roll at 12 [on the Stimpmeter] all the time. They just learn to play the game."
All one has to do is glance at Thompson's Instagram feed to see her strong work ethic. There are frequently workout pictures. The other day she posted an image of her hands, calloused and blistered, after a long practice session.
"I don't think it's a lack of effort," Rankin says. "You have a bunch of players from around the world who are very talented, who are very work-driven and seem to have a very special mental attitude for the game. I think that plays well for them, many from the Far East, for the long haul."
At age 21, Thompson, who won her first LPGA event at 16, has seven career wins, including a major. Rarely, though, is her putting as good as her powerful ball-striking. Thompson is ranked 61st in putts per green in regulation for 2016.
Inkster laughed when informed that, at age 56, she is the only American in the top 10 in that important statistical category.
"Lexi and Gerina, too, they're good putters but not great putters," Inkster says. "You can say what you want about hitting the ball, but if you're not putting well, you're not going to win. When Lexi wins, she putts well. That's the bottom line. Most of the Asian players can roll the rock. That's where you make your living."
Whether the formation of new programs to mold elite female golfers would help their short games is an unknown. But there is growing consensus that unless some type of coordinated approach is developed in America in which kids of all financial backgrounds take part, the LPGA landscape of 2016 might be the long-term future despite Kerr's contention that the lack of wins "is just a blip."
"There's no reason why it shouldn't happen," Coulson says. "Whether you could get everybody around the table to come up with an aligned strategy and make it happen is probably a different discussion. There are a lot of stakeholders, and they all have their own interests. It's quite easy to produce participation, but that doesn't mean you're going to produce elite players."
Can a bad year lead to good things?
"Golf is a global game, and people are coming from all over to the LPGA because it's the best tour," Mulflur says. "They want to succeed at the highest level, just like the American players do. Good for them. They are pushing us to be better. You either step up or fall behind."