High Tide For Womens Golf

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2007 U.S. WomenSOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- These are high times for womens golf. And, no, this column has nothing to do with drug testing.
 
Later this year the worlds best female golfers will play their British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews. In 2010 the worlds best female golfers will play their U.S. Open at Oakmont. In 2014 theyre going to Pebble Beach.
 
These are not goat tracks.
 
They are great golf courses. And Im not convinced that the Lords of Augusta, whenever they finally decide to bestow membership on a woman, wont soon after that consider hosting a major championship for women on their hallowed grounds.
 
Sneer at that notion if you must. But Masters chairman Billy Payne is a progressive and the New South is still alive and well in the hearts and minds of a lot of people in that region.
 
Another reason these are high times for womens golf are the teenagers. Womens golf, at its top level, has always skewed young.
 
But there were an unusually high number of 24 teenagers in the field here at Pine Needles Thursday when the U.S. Womens Open got underway. And then there was Alexis Thompson, who wont be a teenager until next February when she turns 13.
 
The low teenager in Round One was something of a startler. Angela Park, born in Brazil, raised in Southern California and currently living in Florida, is 18 years old.
 
She birdied the first three holes, made one bogey and carded a 3-under par 68 before a long weather delay stalled the afternoon schedule.
 
Park beat 17-year-old Michelle Wie by 14 shots. She beat 19-year-old Morgan Pressel by three shots. She beat Karrie Webb, who won this event the last time it came to Pine Needles, by 15.
 
Angela Park, who once lost in the semi-finals of the U.S. Womens Amateur to Pressel, hit 13 fairways and needed just 27 putts.
 
I didnt think it wasnt supposed to be happening, Angela Park said after her round. Ive been in contention before.
 
Should we be surprised at what Angela Park did Thursday?
 
Not really. She fired a closing 69 last Sunday to finish tied for 21st at the Wegmans LPGA. In her two starts before that she posted a solo fifth at the McDonalds LPGA and a solo sixth at the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika.
 
Her home course near Orlando, Orange Tree, is short but notoriously narrow. So narrow that the late Payne Stewart, who won our national championship twice, used to come to Orange Tree the week before U.S. Opens to get used to the tightness of the landing areas.
 
Veteran Cristie Kerr, who played in Parks threesome Thursday, considers Angela to be running away with Rookie of the Year.
 
So actually Thursday was more high times for early first round leader Angela Park. And if she keeps it up, she will be the teenager who walks away with Sundays first place check of $560,000, the winners share of the largest total purse in womens golf.
 
The larger question: Why the spike in womens golf? Why are the purses heading north while some of the best golf courses in the world are lining up to host the women?
 
Well, said David Fay, the USGAs executive director who does NOT, it should be pointed out, work for the LPGA, its my opinion that professional sports is an entertainment industry and I think theres just more value that people are ascribing to entertainers. More people are interested in golf, theres more coverage of womens golf and there are perhaps more compelling stories.
 
I dont think that this money is just falling from the sky. Its effort on the part of the LPGA to promote its product. And its the fact that the product has, in the marketplace, some real economic value.
 
And its impossible to underestimate the importance of youth at the top levels of sport, especially womens sports. If you dont believe that, ask the people who run womens gymnastics, womens tennis and womens figure skating.
 
By the way, by the time the women get to Pebble Beach in 2014 Alexis Thompson will STILL be a teenager. Meanwhile Mina Harigae, a 17-year-old amateur from California, shot a 41-31'72 Thursday before the long weather delay.
 
Theyre getting good fast, said 47-year-old Juli Inkster, a two-time U.S. Womens Open Champion. Its good for golf.
 
Email your thoughts to Brian Hewitt
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - U.S. Women's Open