In an Olympic year, U.S. women are getting torched

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DALY CITY, Calif. – Gerina Piller is the great American hope Sunday at the Swinging Skirts Classic.

Five shots behind Haru Nomura, Piller faces steep odds, but she is the only U.S. player with a legitimate chance going into the final round, the only American among the top nine at Lake Merced Golf Club.

It’s been a tough start to the year for the United States in women’s golf.

In nine events this season, Lexi Thompson is the only American to win an LPGA title.

American Katie Burnett made a strong run at winning the Lotte Championship last Sunday in Hawaii, but she couldn’t hold off Australian Minjee Lee’s back-nine charge. Really, Stacy Lewis is the only other American besides Thompson to even have a chance to win this season. Lewis finished second to Hyo Joo Kim at the season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic. Thompson, by the way, also contended at the ANA Inspiration.

What’s the big deal? Why does it matter so much?

The American struggle is significant because there has probably never been a year in women’s golf where nationalistic pride has been so front and center. That’s because an Olympic gold medal is being offered as a prize this summer for the first time in the history of the women’s game. Yes, the first time. When Margaret Abbott won first place in Paris in 1900, the first time golf was played in the Olympics, she didn’t win a gold medal. She won a porcelain bowl. It was actually the first year women were allowed to compete in any Olympic sport, but according to Olympic historian Paula Welch, Abbott didn’t even know she was competing in the Olympics. The competition was so loosely organized, the participants thought they were playing in an exhibition sideshow to the world’s fair. Women’s golf was dropped from the Olympics after that first year, with only the men going on to play golf in 1904, the last staging of golf as an Olympic sport before its return this year.


Full-field scores from the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic


So who’s going to claim the first Olympic gold medal?

It’s a huge prize for the Koreans, and they seem hell bent to make the honor their own.

The competition to make the team is of such intense interest in South Korea, it’s creating all kinds of pressure on the South Koreans trying to make the team.

“That is driving me crazy,” So Yeon Ryu confided this week.

All those South Korean fans who love women’s golf aren’t hoping one of their own takes home gold. They’re expecting them to do so.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure to win it,” Na Yeon Choi said.

Sei Young Kim was among that big wave of South Koreans who came through LPGA Q-School before last season specifically with the Olympics in mind, specifically to try to rack up the abundance of Olympic qualifying points that are more available to LPGA pros than to pros on any other women’s tour in the world.

“A gold medal would be bigger than winning a major,” Kim said.

You don’t get the sense Olympic glory is driving American women in the same crazy way it’s driving the South Koreans, Japanese and other international players.

The Americans roared to the finish line late last year. Piller led that historic American comeback victory at the Solheim Cup in September, and Americans won four of the last nine LPGA events staged last season. But there’s been no American answer to the bell signifying the calendar’s turn to an Olympic year.

This week’s release of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings came with disappointment for fans of American women’s golf.

For the first time since Olympic qualifying began in golf, there are just two American women in the top 15 of the world rankings. That means if the Olympics were staged today, Thompson and Lewis would be the only American women playing.

According to Olympic rules, a country is allowed a maximum of four qualifiers, provided all four are among the top 15 in the Rolex rankings. Only Thompson at No. 3 and Lewis at No. 4 are among the top 15 this week.

How much have Americans slipped in the Olympic quest?

When Olympic qualifying began on July 14, 2014, there were eight American women among the top 15 of the Rolex world rankings, which are used for Olympic qualifying. Lewis, Thompson, Michelle Wie, Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Angela Stanford, Lizette Salas and Jessica Korda were all among the top 15 that first week.

The Americans have time to mount some momentum in the run-up to Olympic gold, with qualifying closing on July 11, but time’s getting shorter.