The LPGA planted its first seed in Asia at the Mizuno Classic in Japan.
That gives this week’s tournament a special place in LPGA history.
Thirty-nine years ago, this event made its debut as the Japan Classic.
While the rise of Asian dominance in the women’s game might have been inspired by South Korean Se Ri Pak’s breakthrough in the U.S. in 1998, the Asian connection was first formally made in this event in ’73. The LPGA reached halfway across the world to co-sanction the inaugural Japan Classic with the LPGA of Japan Tour, marking the first time the LPGA staged a competition in the Far East.
“It was very important for several reasons,” says Charlie Mechem, LPGA commissioner from 1990-95. “In those days, we did not really play much outside the United States, so the exposure was good for the tour, and by any measure, the sponsors were very dedicated and the events were fabulously run. Our players and staff were treated great, and it was just a lot of fun to go over there.
“Also, it provided us with important Japanese TV exposure. Those rights fees were the beginning of what is now a very large revenue stream for the LPGA. Japan was the seedling for what’s in place today.”
Today, Korean and Japanese TV rights packages are the LPGA’s two largest revenue streams.
American Jan Ferraris won the first Japan Classic in ‘73, with her winnings counting as unofficial money.
In its formative years, the tournament was dominated by Americans. Amy Alcott, Pat Bradley, Nancy Lopez and Patty Sheehan won it multiple times. Players from the U.S. won four of the first five Japan Classics, eight of the first 11, but momentum swung another direction here a long time ago. It has been 20 years since a player from the U.S. has won this tournament.
Betsy King is the last American to win it. She took home the trophy in ’92 and ’93, when it was known as the Toray Japan Queen’s Cup.
The relationship the LPGA started with the Japanese through the Mizuno Classic would help open a door for Japan’s Ayako Okamoto to come to the U.S. in 1981 and play the LPGA’s tour. Okamoto was a superstar in Japan, and her success in America helped fuel interest in the American tour in the Far East.
While Pak deservedly gets credit for inspiring South Koreans, Okamoto was the Far East’s first successful pioneer in the West in women’s golf. A World Golf Hall of Famer, Okamoto won 17 LPGA titles and was the tour’s leading money winner and Player of the Year in ’87.
“I would have to think what Okamoto did had an impact on Se Ri,” Mechem said.
Asians have won the last five Mizuno Classics. Japan’s Momoko Ueda is back to defend her title this week.
The LPGA’s inroad to the Far East would eventually lead to South Korea, Malaysia, China and Taiwan.
Six LPGA events are now staged in Asia, the most in the tour’s 63-year history.
“It just showcases how global our tour has become,” said Suzann Pettersen, who has won back-to-back in the last two weeks of this Fall Asian swing.
Since ’73, the LPGA has staged 87 events in the Far East.
It begs a question: Who is the queen of LPGA Asian golf? Or, who is the most successful player in LPGA events staged in the Far East?
So many of the biggest names in women’s golf have left their marks in Asia, but nobody quite as profoundly as Annika Sorenstam.
The Swede won eight LPGA tournaments staged in Asia, more than any other player. Sorenstam won the Mizuno Classic five consecutive years (2001-05). She was the first LPGA or PGA Tour pro to win the same event five years running.
“This is one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my career,” Sorenstam said after claiming her fifth Mizuno Classic. “To do something nobody has ever done, ranks right up there.”
Actually, Sorenstam isn’t the only Scandinavian to have thrived in the Far East.
Pettersen, of Norway, is the LPGA’s new hottest player after winning the LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship and the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship in back-to-back weeks. It’s the second time she has won back-to-back events on the Asian swing. She won the HanaBank Championship and Honda LPGA Thailand in consecutive weeks in ’07.
Outside Sorenstam, nobody has won more LPGA events in Asia than Pettersen, who isn’t playing this week.
Here’s the list of players who have won the most LPGA titles in Asia:
Sorenstam – 8.
Pettersen – 4.
Yani Tseng – 4.
Karrie Webb – 3.
Jiyai Shin – 3.
Na Yeon Choi – 3.