Inaugural International Crown a stirring success

By Randall MellJuly 28, 2014, 8:36 pm

OWINGS MILLS, Md.  Move over, Solheim Cup, you've got a rival.

Well, not really a rival, but an alter ego, one seemingly destined to rival the Solheim Cup in popularity and appeal.

The International Crown opened as a hit at Caves Valley Golf Club this past week, even with the featured-attraction Americans flopping.

Yeah, you may point to Sunday's diminished crowds and disagree, with Baltimore-area golf fans disappointed they weren't going to see the Americans in Sunday singles after the U.S. team was eliminated in pool play. Sure, that was a setback to the event's debut, but that's all on the Americans. That wasn't about the format not being good enough. That was all about the Americans not being good enough. It wasn't just disappointing that the home team didn't make it to Sunday. It was disappointing so many top-ranked players exited the event as the Americans featured four of the top 12 players in the world rankings, including No. 1 Stacy Lewis.

And still, the International Crown couldn't have delivered a more dynamic quartet of personalities as its inaugural champions.

The Spaniards won with flair and a fun-loving bravado unmatched in the competition.

All the folks who didn't show up Sunday missed the show the Spaniards put on, sweeping all four of their singles matches, playing with unrivaled passion.

In Carlota Ciganda, Belen Mozo, Azahara Munoz and Beatriz Recari, the International Crown showcased what this event is all about  nationalistic golfing fervor. Nobody showed more of it than the Spaniards.

"We feel the flag," Recari said afterward. "Our blood boils when we hear the anthem, and when we see the flag."

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan wanted to create a complement to the Solheim Cup that would be different from a women's version of the Presidents Cup. He wanted a team event that would include players outside the United States and Europe, but he didn't want to create a "rest of the world" team. He wanted nations playing for their own flags, and that simple concept proved a stroke of genius. It made all the difference in the world to this event's success and its bright future.

The Presidents Cup feels coldly contrived. The International Crown felt naturally heated, like it was always meant to be.

Yes, an initial reaction watching the teams during the opening introductions at the first tee Thursday couldn't help draw comparisons to the Solheim Cup. The wild intensity of a Solheim Cup was missing, but if you looked closely, you saw something just as compelling. You saw intense emotion in the faces of the players listening to their national anthems. You saw what instantly connected these players in a powerfully meaningful way to the competition. You saw what will make this event just as emotionally meaningful to golf fans as it catches on.

The International Crown will grow larger in impact than the Solheim Cup because its scale is potentially so much larger. This encompasses the entire world of women's golf with the same passions that make the Solheim Cup work. The International Crown is only lacking history as a big event.

As soon as this biennial competition is played for the first time in South Korea or Japan, it will become super-sized. This will be a Super Bowl in those countries, where women's golf is so popular. It's definitely destined to be played somewhere in Asia, Whan pledged on Sunday when meeting with reporters.

The next International Crown will be played in 2016 at Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago, and it will have a title sponsor, Whan confirmed. The inaugural event was funded by an aggregate of sponsors, but a deal with a major title sponsor that will run for at least the next three events is nearly ready to be announced. The first year it's possible to take the International Crown outside the United States is 2018, and a date in Asia would seem likely then. Whan, however, said future sites will be put up for bids.

Given all the details that go into putting on a first-time event with a format that's never been tried before, Whan was more than pleased with the International Crown's debut.

"Would it be better for an event played in America for the Americans to play in it [on Sunday]? Of course it would," Whan said. "I've never believed 2014 was going to define the International Crown. I think when we look back, we'll remember things about this, but 2014 was about building something that would lead to significance in the game.

"I don't know any player or caddie I've talked to this week who doesn't believe this is going to be one of the showcase events in women's golf. That's what we're trying to do, build another event that the rest of the world pays attention to."

While there will be some tweaks to the event, don't expect a major format change just because the Americans didn't make it out of pool play. Whan has heard pleas to change the format so all eight teams make it to Sunday, assuring a home team like the United States doesn't get shut out of singles play again.

"That's great, but you take out 75 percent of the drama," Whan said. "You could say every team in the NFL gets in the playoff at the end of the season, but then the regular season is kind of ho-hum. What makes this interesting, what makes it compelling, is those players knew standing on the 16th tee [of Saturday's playoff] that 'a couple of us aren't going to be back tomorrow.' That's what makes it great.

"For all the Americana I've gotten on Twitter, Facebook, I don't buy into that. I think this is better and more robust, including for Americans down the road, if it's harder to get to Sunday."

There's one change that is almost certain. Qualifying for the event will be backed up into later in the summer, so players who get hot, like Michelle Wie did this year, don't get shut out of the event. Whan defended the March 31 qualifying deadline for the inaugural event as being important in assuring the best players all showed up. He said it was pivotal to the first year that the biggest names could commit early and plan to play.

While Whan said his staff needs time to fully evaluate what happened this past week before making tweaks, a change to the Saturday sudden-death playoff format isn't likely, either. He said the fourballs with a tiebreaker on the second ball assures the playoff doesn't run on into dark, especially if more than two teams are in that playoff.

Also, don't expect the number of teams to grow beyond eight or the roster sizes beyond four.

"If you get to six players, if you want more than eight countries, you start to get diluted, in terms of the talent that is at that first tee," Whan said.

Whan has time to ponder changes, but he knows the foundation for a successful new event is set.

"I really believe we are on to something that people will circle on their calendar," he said. "Long term, this will be an event you won't miss as a golfer."

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McCoy earns medalist honors at Q-School

By Will GrayDecember 11, 2017, 12:30 am

One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Tour Q-School.

McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.

It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.

McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).

Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).

Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.



Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."

Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout

Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.