Inaugural International Crown a stirring success


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."