WINNIPEG, Manitoba – LPGA veteran Lorie Kane of Canada sees a lot of change in the evolution of her sport.
Gone are the days when Americans and Europeans dominated the LPGA Tour. This year 126 active players represent 28 different countries, with almost half hailing from Asia.
There’s also been an influx of youth.
The average age of the top 10 players heading into this week’s Canadian Women’s Open at St. Charles Country Club is 24. Japan’s Ai Miyazato, the No. 1 player on the Rolex World Rankings list, is just 25.
Players can’t get their LPGA card until they’re 18, but many are turning pro in their teens and playing on sponsors’ exemptions.
Kane welcomes the new look.
“I think it’s great,” said the 45-year-old native of Charlottetown. “It means that women’s golf across the world, not just across Canada and the U.S., is strong. I think that needs to be the fact to continue to grow the brand of the LPGA Tour.”
This week’s tournament – the only LPGA stop in Canada – begins Thursday with a field of 156 players, including 48 of the top 50 on the money list.
Those making the cut after 36 holes will vie on the weekend for part of the US$2.25 million purse, including $337,500 for the winner.
No Canadian made the cut at last year’s event in Calgary and 14 will try to change that this weekend. The last Canadian to win an LPGA Tour event on home soil was Jocelyne Bourassa in 1973.
Alena Sharp is the country’s top-ranked player. She’s ranked 112th in the world and has earned $113,340 this year (53rd on the money list).
Sharp, 29, also believes the diversity of passports is good for the game, but she thinks young golfers would benefit more if they got a post-secondary education before turning pro.
“Because our schedule is so diminished right now, it’s better to stay in school for the four years and then get a degree and then come out here,” said Sharp, who turned pro after graduating from New Mexico State in 2003 with a marketing degree.
“In a couple more years, our tournaments will be back up. There’s really no point, unless you’re a phenom and you don’t want to go to school and you’re winning everything, I think you should stay in school.”
There are fewer tournaments on the schedule these days. Tour commissioner Michael Whan admits the recession has hit the LPGA Tour hard.
“But I feel comfortable telling you that we’ll play more in 2011 than we played in 2010,” he said. “I feel comfortable telling you that what’s going on at the LPGA has definitely caught the attention of companies, not just in the U.S. but around the world.”
Fans in Winnipeg will get a glimpse of the future this week at St. Charles.
American Alexis Thompson will be playing on a sponsor’s exemption. The 15-year-old turned pro in June – the youngest female player to do so – and has already tied for 10th and second in two events.
Morgan Pressel, a 22-year-old Florida native, is also teeing it up.
She became the youngest player in tour history to win a major when she captured the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship at 18 years 10 months nine days.
Tour veteran Juli Inkster, 50, said the young players have raised the exposure of the game, as has holding events outside North America.
“They dress great, they dress hip, I think it’s great,” the Californian said.
And she doesn’t mind competing against girls less than half her age.
“That’s the beauty of golf, you can,” Inkster said. “You couldn’t do that in tennis or baseball.”