It’s such an odd year for American women in golf.
Lexi Thompson will tee it up as the defending champion at this week’s KEB Hana Bank Championship leading a slumping American contingent.
It’s an odd year because these slumping Americans were crowned “the best golfing nation” this summer when they won the International Crown biennial team event. They also saw one of their own, Brittany Lang, win the greatest prize in women’s golf, the U.S. Women’s Open.
That doesn’t sound like a “slumping” American effort, yet the Americans are en route to their worst overall showing in the LPGA’s 67 seasons.
At No. 5 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, Thompson won’t only be the highest ranked American in this week’s field. She will be the only American left among the top 10 in the world. Former world No. 1 Stacy Lewis saw her run of 264 consecutive weeks among the top 10 end when she dropped to No. 11 this week.
Thompson and Lang are the only American winners of LPGA events this year.
Since the LPGA was formed in 1950, Americans have never failed to win fewer than four events in a season.
Here’s another troubling dimension to the American contingent. Thompson’s the only American under 30 years old among the top 25 in the Rolex world rankings. In a women’s game that’s getting so much younger, the best American women are starting to get older.
The average age of the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings is 22.6 years old.
There isn’t a player 30 or older in the top 10 anymore. Inbee Park is the oldest in that mix at 28.
Thompson is 21.
Lewis, Lang, Gerina Piller and Cristie Kerr are the only other Americans among the top 25 in the world, and they’re all in their 30s. No, they aren’t too old to lead an American resurgence, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of young Americans on the rise joining them.
Where’s that next wave of Americans going to come from?
Jessica Korda is a four-time LPGA winner at just 23. She’s streaky good and joins Austin Ernst, 24, as the only Americans beside Thompson with victories who are under 25. Korda is No. 29 in the world, Ernst No. 76. Alison Lee, a second-year pro, is a bright prospect. She’s coming back from a shoulder injury that slowed her the first half of this year. She’s just 21 and American fans are hopeful she could join Thompson as a regular American contender.
What’s happening to the American effort? It’s a complex question with no apparent single answer, but there’s no doubt the LPGA’s global expansion raised the bar for American women and they’ve struggled to respond.
Americans won 24 LPGA events in 1997, the year before Se Ri Pak broke through to make her first two LPGA titles major championships. It’s no coincidence the American victory totals have never reached the level they were before Pak’s arrival. Americans won 17 times in ’98, Pak’s rookie year. They won 15 times in ’99. They’ve never won more than that in a single year since.
Pak wasn’t the first foreign player to make an impact on the LPGA. Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam and Australia’s Karrie Webb were already taking over the tour when Pak came along.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who’s in South Korea this week to help honor Pak’s farewell appearance before retirement, credits Pak for sparking more than a fire in Korean golf. He credits her with making it the global game it is today.
“I've read a lot that Se Ri created a real explosion in Korean golf, but I really think that's too narrow,” Whan said. “I think what Se Ri did is really wake up all of Asia to this opportunity and created a tour for us that we probably couldn't have envisioned in 1997.”
With South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and now China delivering world-class players, the LPGA has never been deeper with talent. Players of Asian descent swept the Olympic medals this summer, with South Korea’s Inbee Park taking gold, New Zealand’s Korean-born Lydia Ko taking silver and China’s Shanshan Feng taking bronze.
Players from nine different countries have won LPGA events this year, with five different countries claiming this year’s majors and players from five different countries occupying the top five spots in this week’s Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
“In the era that Se Ri created, women's golf is global,” Whan said. “Players come from all over the world. We play all over the world. We're televised all over the world, and, most importantly, little girls all over the world grew up watching and saying, `I want to do that, too.”
The global explosion of women’s golf explains a lot of the American challenges, but not all of them. The men’s game is global, too, but five of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are Americans.