U.S. women's struggles a systemic failure?

By Randall MellNovember 15, 2016, 1:18 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – American women can only hope they’re in a slump, because it looks like something worse.

They have never looked more overwhelmed by Asia’s rise to power.

The Americans arrive for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship this week looking more like victims of a systemic failure than a cyclical blip.

That’s what some of the game’s most experienced eyes are seeing.

“It’s getting a little bit scary right now for American women’s golf,” David Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com. “There’s just a real lack of depth in the Americans coming out on tour. All the real star quality right now is with the Asian players.”

Leadbetter is not alone in believing American women are in a developmental free fall.

“It looks like there’s just nothing out there,” swing coach Gary Gilchrist said of young American prospects. “We should be a powerhouse, but the Asians are coming out younger and stronger, and now they’re coming from everywhere over there.”

South Korea remains the dominant force in women’s golf, but Gilchrist is getting a close-up look at Thailand’s and China’s emergence as potentially the next great forces. Gilchrist coaches Ariya Jutanugarn, a Thai who has soared to world No. 2 with an LPGA best five victories this year. He also coaches Shanshan Feng, the Olympic bronze medalist from China who won back-to-back LPGA starts this fall.

“Americans need to do something about this before they become extinct,” Gilchrist said.

The United States is suffering through a year as strange as it is troubling.

American Brittany Lang won the U.S. Women’s Open in July, the biggest prize in the women’s game. The Americans won the UL International Crown team event in August, when they were declared the “best golfing nation.” And yet, the Americans are still wheezing toward epic failure.

In the 67-year history of the LPGA, Americans have never won fewer than four LPGA titles in a season, but they’ve managed just half that this year. Lang and Lexi Thompson are the only Americans to win LPGA events in 2016.

The Americans were shut out in the Olympics this summer, failing to win gold, silver or bronze medals.

And they have been shut out in the Race to the CME Globe jackpot this week.



No American has a chance at the $1 million CME Globe payout. You have to be among the top nine in the CME Globe standings to have a shot to win the season-long competition, and no American is.

Thompson is the lone American left in the top 10 of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, and Lang is the lone U.S. player among the top 10 on the LPGA money list.

ESPN analyst Dottie Pepper, a 17-time LPGA winner, believes Americans today are lacking something internal.

“The Americans are out-motivated, out-focused and out-driven, and it’s showing up,” Pepper told the Associated Press this week. “Nobody wants to hear that, but all you have to do is look at the results.”

LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin says she has struggled to find a definitive answer to what’s ailing American women, but she wonders if it might be something as simple as a failing generation of American putters. She also wonders if maybe it’s even simpler than that. She wonders if Asia is mostly what ails the Americans.

“These other international players, particularly from Asia, they’re just tag teaming each other right now,” Rankin said. “When an American gets in there with a chance to win, there isn’t one player from Asia to beat now. It’s usually four or five.”

What’s happening to the Americans?

The real answer might be that Se Ri Pak is still happening to them.

There is no overplaying the impact Pak continues to have in Asia, and the challenge she created for the American version of the game. Pak changed everything in ways that are more profound now than they have ever been. She created a phenomenon the Americans still haven’t figured out how to overcome.

Pak still represents what makes women’s golf work in South Korea and what holds it back in the United States.

Here it is ...

Pak made Korean men care more about a woman’s sport than they did the male version of the same sport. She created a flood of male interest in women’s golf. She won over men willing to invest time and money to support the women’s game.

That changed everything.

That’s the Pak phenomenon.

That’s what the American women’s game is missing.

Pak was a Korean hero whose success radiated beyond golf. Her breakthrough winning the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 came with her homeland reeling in hard economic times. Her success was a source of immense nationalistic pride, and she became a symbol of hope for men and women in every walk of life. She transcended the game.

It’s why female South Korean pros are more popular than male South Korean pros.

It’s why LPGA TV ratings in South Korea dwarf Korean PGA TV ratings, even Masters and U.S. Open ratings.

It’s why so many of the top Korean LPGA pros have better endorsement deals than Korean PGA Tour pros do.

How does this correlate to what’s wrong with the American women’s game?

Pak’s appeal to Korean men led to an investment in the women’s game that Americans aren’t able to compete with. The sophistication of Korean junior girls’ golf, the development of Korean national teams and the creation of a three-tiered professional women’s golf tour has fueled a pipeline that won’t quit.

“There is such great support in Korea,” said So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion. “When you have all that support, you feel special and you feel confident, like you can achieve anything. It’s a great system, and it makes you dream bigger.”

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan believes Pak’s impact radiated beyond South Korea’s borders.

“I’ve read 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 wake up all of Asia to this opportunity.”

Japan’s Ai Miyazato and Taiwan’s Yani Tseng were influenced by Pak in their rise to the world No. 1 ranking.

Like many other Korean LPGA stars, Ryu played her way from amateur city associations to the Korean national team, where her expenses were covered competing as an amateur in Asian and international events. The training was intense and highly formalized.

Once a Korean amateur is ready to turn pro, there are three levels to play through, all under the Korean LPGA’s umbrella. There’s the Jump Tour, the Dream Tour and the KLPGA. It’s something akin to Major League Baseball’s farm system.

“Without a doubt in my mind, the KLPGA Tour structure is the best in the world for producing professional tour players,” said Dean Herden, who has caddied for Korean stars Ryu, In Gee Chun and Jiyai Shin. “Star players will always come and go, but having a proper tour structure is so important to the future of the sport.”

The rookie crop of South Koreans that hit the LPGA last year was the strongest ever.

Ten of the top 12 players in the world rankings today are Asian born.

“There really is a pipeline going over there, and they’re coming fast and furious,” Leadbetter said. “The level of talent is absolutely astounding.”

Leadbetter toured China and Thailand in October. He’s opening a series of Leadbetter Kids Programs.

“The golf authorities over here should go see what’s taking place,” Leadbetter said. “The reaction would be, ‘Wow, we better get moving before we get left behind.’ The way they’re going about things in Asia, it reminds me of the way Romania was with its gymnasts, back in the day. They are getting these kids now at a young age, training them and training their minds. They’ve got some amazing young talent.”

Gilchrist believes American golf governing bodies need to look at the challenges.

“When you aren’t performing, you have to look at the process, the system you have in place to support families with young girls who want to be the best in the world,” Gilchrist said. “The thing is, we don’t have one. In America, it’s up to individual families.”

Gilchrist would like to see that change.

“I can’t blame the American girls on tour,” Gilchrist said. “We have to look at what we’re doing and ask if we can do it better. We have to come together and really think about it.”

Leadbetter agrees.

“Right now, it’s almost like it takes a slice of good luck to come through this system,” Leadbetter said.

The American rugged individualist model that produced Juli Inkster, Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Dottie Pepper doesn’t hold up very well today. They all came through the college ranks, but that isn’t typically the Asian pathway.

By the time an American player graduates from college today, she’s four to five years behind Asian players who turned pro when they were 17 or 18 years old. There isn’t a player among the top 10 in the world rankings this week who attended college. Of the last 11 major championship winners, Brittany Lang is the only one who attended college.

This isn’t to say it’s all about the American system. There are some issues in the American ranks.

Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel were celebrated phenoms who have each worked through some struggles after winning majors. Cristie Kerr is getting older. She’s a mom now, who will turn 40 next year.

And while Stacy Lewis carried the American banner a long time – she’s the only American to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award or the Vare Trophy in two decades – she got married this summer, and she confesses she has struggled to work out the balance she craves in her new life.

Thompson is carrying the American banner now at No. 5 in the world rankings.

Who’s coming behind her?

That’s the big question.

“I can’t see anyone at the moment who looks like she’s going to challenge for the top spot,” Leadbetter said.

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Stock Watch: Strange grumpy; Tiger Time again?

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 1:00 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): This should put his whirlwind 17 months in the proper context: Rahm (38) has earned four worldwide titles in 25 fewer starts – or a full season quicker – than Jordan Spieth (63). This kid is special.

Tommy Fleetwood (+7%): Putting on a stripe show in windy conditions, the Englishman defended his title in Abu Dhabi (thanks to a back-nine 30) and capped a 52-week period in which he won three times, contended in majors and WGCs, and soared inside the top 15 in the world.

Sergio (+3%): Some wholesale equipment changes require months of adjustments. In Garcia’s case, it didn’t even take one start, as the new Callaway staffer dusted the field by five shots in Singapore.

Rory (+2%): Sure, it was a deflating Sunday finish, as he shot his worst round of the week and got whipped by Fleetwood, but big picture he looked refreshed and built some momentum for the rest of his pre-Masters slate. That’s progress.

Ken Duke (+1%): Looking ahead to the senior circuit, Duke, 48, still needs a place to play for the next few years. Hopefully a few sponsors saw what happened in Palm Springs, because his decision to sub in for an injured Corey Pavin for the second and third rounds – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard – was as selfless as it gets.


FALLING

Austin Cook (-1%): The 54-hole leader in the desert, he closed with 75 – the worst score of anyone inside the top 40. Oy.

Phil (-2%): All of that pre-tournament optimism was tempered by the reality of his first missed cut to start the new year since 2009. Now ranked 45th in the world, his position inside the top 50 – a spot he’s occupied every week since November 1993 – is now in jeopardy.

Careful What You Wish For (-3%): Today’s young players might (foolishly) wish they could have faced Woods in his prime, but they’ll at least get a sense this week of the spectacle he creates. Playing his first Tour event in a year, and following an encouraging warmup in the Bahamas, his mere presence at Torrey is sure to leave everyone else to grind in obscurity.

Curtis Strange (-5%): The two-time U.S. Open champ took exception with the chummy nature of the CareerBuilder playoff, with Rahm and Andrew Landry chatting between shots. “Are you kidding me?” Strange tweeted. “Talking at all?” The quality of golf was superb, so clearly they didn’t need to give each other the silent treatment to summon their best.

Brooks Koepka (-8%): A bummer, the 27-year-old heading to the DL just as he was starting to come into his own. The partially torn tendon in his left wrist is expected to knock him out of action until the Masters, but who knows how long it’ll take him to return to game shape.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.