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International Crown intensity high at LPGA opener

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The LPGA’s season opener in the Bahamas next week is about a lot more than shaking off rust.

With the International Crown making its debut later this year, the intensity will immediately ratchet up in the ranks of the South Koreans, Americans and Japanese.

While the eight nations qualifying for the International Crown were set at the end of last year, the competition to see who makes those four-player rosters continues. The most intense battles look like they’ll unfold for the South Korean, American and Japanese rosters.

For South Korea, with fierce nationalistic pride in its country’s dominance of the women’s game, there promises to be escalating scrutiny on who qualifies and who doesn’t. So Yeon Ryu said there is already pressure building with South Korean fans expecting a win to prove that nation is truly the world’s best in women’s golf.

“The really hard part is Koreans are pretty sure we’re going to win this tournament,” Ryu says of her country’s fan base. “I think that makes it really hard.”

It’s practically a free-for-all for the final spot on the South Korean roster.

On the American front, there’s no guarantee American stars Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer hold on to the last two U.S. spots. They have work to do to secure their places over the next three months.

Japan has a bunch of players in the top 50 in the world with a chance to make its team.

The International Crown is scheduled July 24-27 at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owing Mills, Md.

South Korea, the United States, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Chinese Tapei and Australia claimed spots into the event based on the cumulative world rankings of their best four players near the end of last season. However, the competition for rosters spots on those teams remains open through March 31, the Monday before the Kraft Nabisco Championship begins.

That leaves just six LPGA events for players from those eight countries to make their team, though qualifying isn’t limited to LPGA events. The top four from each nation in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings on March 31 will make the team.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan believes this will be a showcase event.

“It takes our tour’s greatest asset and puts it on display,” Whan said. “Fans and viewers have different views on this, but the global nature of our tour, the fact that the best players come from all over the world, and that the whole world is watching, that is our greatest advantage at the LPGA.

“When we play in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, what you realize is that they are so country proud, it’s unbelievable. So we’re going to give them an opportunity to be country proud. We’re going to give them an opportunity to put up the flag, paint the face, sing the anthem and let’s see who the best country in the world is.”

Here’s a look at how the roster battles shape up for each country with the world rankings in parenthesis:

South Korea: Inbee Park (1), So Yeon Ryu (5), Na Yeon Choi (7), I.K. Kim (10), Ha Na Jang (14), Amy Yang (15), Jiyai Shin (16), Hee Young Park (18), Hyo-Joo Kim (24), Sun Ju Ahn (27), Chella Choi (28), Se Ri Pak (30),

The South Koreans are so deep, they literally could have had three or four teams qualify for this event if more than one team from each nation were allowed to make it. Pak, the Hall of Famer who inspired her nation’s dominance, would make quite the story if she could work her way on to the team.

United States: Stacy Lewis (3), Lexi Thompson (9), Cristie Kerr (12), Paula Creamer (13), Angela Stanford (17), Lizette Salas (20), Gerina Piller (36), Jessica Korda (42), Brittany Lincicome (46), Morgan Pressel (47), Jennifer Johnson (56), Michelle Wie (61).

That’s quite the bunching there with Thompson, Kerr, Creamer, Stanford and Salas all within 11 world-ranking spots.

Japan: Ai Miyazato (21), Mika Miyazato (22), Sakura Yokomine (34), Rikako Morita (38), Miki Saiki (44), Shiho Oyama (48), Mamiko Higa (49), Yumiko Yoshido (51), Chie Arimura (66).

The Miyazatos aren’t sisters, but they are the most well-known Japanese players to LPGA fans. There’s a lot of talent, though, on Japan’s own women’s tour who could make international names for themselves at Caves Valley.

Spain: Beatriz Recari (19), Azahara Munoz (31), Carlota Ciganda (39), Belen Mozo (172), Mireia Prat (247), Maria Hernandez (340), Patricia Sanz Barrio (367).

The trio of Spaniards leading the way here were a big part of Europe winning its first Solheim Cup on American soil last year.

Sweden: Caroline Hedwall (23), Anna Nordqvist (26), Pernilla Lindberg (119), Mikaela Parmlid (146), Karin Sjodin (180), Linda Wessberg (216), Camilla Lennarth (250).

Hedwall and Nordqvist are proven international team match-play dynamos as part of the last two winning European Solheim Cup teams. Hedwall was the first player to go 5-0 in a Solheim Cup in last year’s Euro win.

Thailand: Ariya Jutanugarn (29), Pornanong Phatlum (35), Moriya Jutanugarn (85), Thidapa Suwannapura (123), Onnarin Attayabanphot (141), Nontaya Srisawang (166), Patcharajutar Kongkrapan (237).

There’s a lot of young, emerging talent here. The Thais could really surprise.

Chinese Taipei: Yani Tseng (37), Teresa Lu (54), Candie Kung (92), Hsuan-Yu Yao (163), Yun-Jye Wei (207), Tzu-Chi Lin (406).

This is Yani’s team. She is revered in her homeland, and she’ll be looking to regain her best form to help make her nation proud.

Australia: Karrie Webb (8), Katherine Hull-Kirk (107), Stacey Keating (114), Lindsey Wright (129), Rebecca Artis (148), Sarah Jane Smith (185), Nikki Campbell (213), Bree Arthur (223), Sarah Kemp (231), Kristie Smith (232).

Webb may be the only Hall of Famer to qualify for this international team event, but this is a team with proven winners in the United States, Europe and their native Australia.