How national golf federations give international players a leg up in the NCAA
As players prepare for the 2017 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championships this weekend at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois, an ever-growing mix of international players will compete with the backing of their national golf federations.
In recent years, the number of international players in college golf has exploded. Currently, 18 of the top 50 players in Golfweek's women's collegiate individual rankings come from countries with national golf federations where youth golf is highly supported and government-funded. Of the top 10 nationally ranked women's golf teams, all but two have at least one international player, on rosters with less than 12 players. Stanford has four, and Florida State and Florida have five. Duke has zero Americans and seven international players who play in countries with golf federations.
As of 2015, 26 percent of all Division I women's college golfers were from outside the U.S.
Golf federations, which are part of the International Golf Federation, vary slightly in how the sport is promoted and how much support is given to amateur golfers. But the goal is clear with each one: to develop top players for their national teams, preparing them for college golf and through the beginning of their professional careers.
Take Golf Australia, for example. Should an amateur golfer qualify for the national team, he or she will have access to and receive funding for coaching, travel for international and domestic competition, equipment, media training, education for parents and conditioning training across the spectrum, from sports psychologists to nutritionists.
While the funding is dependent on the athlete's needs, the main goal is to develop the player. Brad James, the Golf Australia director, said of his program: "We are able to provide resources and opportunities that most personal coaches cannot. ... I think the biggest difference is the college program/system is not always set up for the best interest of the athlete. NCAA rules limit coaching time and access to coaching; coaches are paid to win today, so long-term athlete development is not always the priority. As a federation we are looking to develop the athletes for long-term, sustained success. The development process and time to accomplish this is a different process to the college system."
Currently, Golf Australia has six players competing at American universities.
Beth Ann Nichols, who has covered women's golf extensively, has seen the landscape change enormously in women's college golf. For instance, Duke won the NCAA championship with only Americans on the roster in 2006. Eight years later, the Blue Devils won it all again with five players who were born overseas.
"There aren't enough blue-chip American players to meet the needs of the number of college golf programs that expect to contend for an NCAA title," Nichols said. "As schools put more money into college golf programs, the stakes have grown higher, and coaches can no longer afford to recruit solely in their backyards."
LPGA veteran Myra Blackwelder coached at the University of Kentucky from 2007 to 2010. While there, she was confronted with a harsh reality that she would have to recruit largely outside of Kentucky to develop a top-25 team. "I was disappointed I couldn't focus more on American players. I wanted to focus first on the players that were Kentucky citizens, and then of course the United States."
The U.S. institution that most closely resembles a golf federation is USA Golf. Major golf organizations met to figure out how to comply with the U.S. Olympic Committee after golf became part of the Olympic program for Rio. In the Olympic world, the national governing bodies that are recognized by the USOC are guided by the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sport Act, which clearly defines how these organizations must be structured in order to be recognized. As a result, USA Golf was established in 2011 and was recognized as the official governing body for Olympic golf.
"Our primary mission is to field teams to compete in Olympic competition and Olympic-related competition," said Andy Levinson, USA Golf director, adding that the other priority is to develop future Olympians.
While USA Golf is in the process of developing a program that would look similar to other federations, it is limited in how it can help amateur golfers because of NCAA rules.
NCAA rules state that amateur players who do not play for federations can only receive equipment, funding for coaching and compensation for travel and entry fees the day before a tournament and on the days of competition. For international golfers who play for or have access to federations, these limitations do not apply since the federations receive government funding. Many of these players will go back home during the summer and compete in tournaments, train with coaches and work in a disciplined environment. For American college golfers who cannot afford to practice at the same level without the support of the university, the access to development as a player is limited in comparison.
These constraints make it difficult to benefit from funding that could aid development. With some parents unable to afford the resources to help their child golfers excel, the advancement of top golfers in America is limited to children with parents of means.
Because of that, Blackwelder is taking her experience as a player and college coach into developing a program called America's Golf Team. She is working with the USGA and NCAA to help provide a structure and system that will allow the development of junior golfers without jeopardizing their amateur status.
"You know, I really think we need a national team to help American players be able to be competitive with the rest of the world," Blackwelder said.
The idea goes back to when she was playing on the LPGA Tour.
"I remember looking around in 1988 to see fellow player Pia Nilsson missing," she said. "All of a sudden I'm asking, 'Where did Pia go?' And they said, 'Well, she went back to Sweden to coach the national golf federation there.' "
The U.S. continues to fall further behind other countries in our ability to produce world-class players. Other countries provide so much and are deeply committed to developing their players. And the U.S.? We leave folks to their own devices and that doesn't always turn out so well.Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur
At the time, golf federations were still fairly new in their aggressive approach to creating platforms for world-class players. "The next thing you know is that the Swedes came on with a vengeance in the 1990s on the LPGA," Blackwelder said, referring to successful players such as Annika Sorenstam and Anna Nordqvist.
There are other advantages that college coaches and players on national federation golf teams see in government-funded programs. The overall consensus with coaches is that players are more prepared for the dynamics of playing golf in a team environment.
"I think those players usually understand better how decisions that you make at the individual level affect the great goal for the team," Stanford women's golf coach Anne Walker said.
For California coach Nancy McDaniel, that team experience makes all the difference in recruiting.
"One of the reasons we recruit these players is due to the great experience that is had on these teams," she wrote in an email.
McDaniel has four international players on her team this year, including Maria Herraez Galvez of Spain.
Herraez, a freshman, has played on the Spanish national team for five years and credits the growth of her game and mental development to the federation.
"Junior golf is mostly about individual wins and playing for yourself," she said "With my national team, I have gotten to play many team events, such as the European team championships, the girls world championship and some friendly matches against some European countries. These have all helped develop my skills as a member of a team, and I have definitely learned how to become a leader."
UCLA women's golf coach Carrie Forsyth would love to see more support for amateur golfers in the U.S., but she knows the structure would need to be different from other golf federations.
"For countries like those in Europe and Asia where the more socialist economies allow for federal funding of many of these programs, I don't see that as a viable solution in the USA. I think the route to go would be to seek private sponsorship, from corporations, or via the USGA," Forsyth said. "Obviously we have our Curtis Cup and Walker Cup teams that are tied to the USGA, but development is not taking place in these teams. So it really depends on what the goal of a national federation is. Development? Grow the game? Provide opportunity? Or merely feature the best players in your nation that have found a way to develop themselves?
"The USA is huge compared to other nations [with the exception of China] that have national teams. We need to figure out a feasible model for this country. And in my opinion, development should be the focus."
The LPGA Tour has 125 international players from 32 countries; started in 1950, the tour did not have international player until 1968. Most notably, world No. 1 Lydia Ko had support early on from New Zealand's golf federation and came on everyone's radar at age 15 when she won the LPGA Canadian Open as an amateur.
Other well-known players in the Rolex World Rankings have also played for their national teams: Brooke Henderson (Canada), Suzann Pettersen (Norway), Charley Hull (England), Minjee Lee (Australia), Anna Nordqvist (Sweden) and Carlota Ciganda (Spain). Ten players from South Korea are in the top 25, along with one player each from China, Japan and Thailand. Lexi Thompson is the only American in the top 10, while four other Americans hover just inside the top 25.
Mary Lou Mulflur, who has coached the University of Washington women's golf team for 30 years, won her first NCAA championship in 2016 with two players who competed on the New Zealand national team -- Julianne Alvarez and Wenyung Keh.
"The U.S. continues to fall further behind other countries in our ability to produce world-class players," Mulflur said. "Other countries provide so much and are deeply committed to developing their players. And the U.S.? We leave folks to their own devices and that doesn't always turn out so well."
Even with the growing influence of international world-class golfers, Mulflur trusts that there's potential in U.S. junior amateur golf. "I believe we have the talent in this country," she said. "I am just not convinced that we are doing all that we can to develop that talent."