With Olympics and majors, LPGA facing a sizzling summer

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Stacy Lewis is figuratively taking a deep breath heading into Thursday’s Pure Silk Bahamas Classic and the LPGA’s season opener.

With golf returning to the Olympics, Lewis knows this summer is going to be crunched full of more historically significant events than the LPGA has ever seen. For the game’s best players, this season is all about pacing oneself and peaking at the right time.

With a well-placed hot run, a player could conceivably jam the equivalent of a Hall of Fame career into this one remarkable summer. In a 10-week spell stretching from June through August, a player could win three major championships and a gold medal. In a 16-week spell extending into September, a player could win four majors and a gold medal.

“It’s going to be hard trying to pace myself early in the year,” Lewis said.

This promises to be a golden year for somebody in women’s golf, with an Olympic gold medal at stake 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 the first time women were allowed to compete in the Olympics, but according to Olympic historian Paula Welch, even Abbott didn’t know she was playing an Olympic event. The competition was so loosely organized that 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 the game as an Olympic sport before its return this year.

The Olympics come as a sort of curveball to the summer slate of women’s big events.

“The schedule’s going to be a huge challenge for everybody,” Lewis told GolfChannel.com. “I’m going to play six events in a row this summer, which is the most I’ve ever played.”

Lewis is going to play the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, the Cambia Portland Classic, the U.S. Women’s Open, the Marathon Classic, the UL International Crown and the Ricoh Women’s British Open in consecutive weeks before getting a week off and then heading to the Olympics, almost a certainty given she’s the highest ranked American woman in the world today. Olympic qualifying off the Rolex Women’s World Rankings ends July 11.

“If you’re hot, it’s a good stretch to play,” Lewis said.

Inbee Park is looking at juggling events to fit the Olympics into her busy summer run.

“Everything is just so bunched together,” Park said. “I’m probably going to miss more tournaments than before, just scheduling out, but it’s a special year, isn’t it?”

"Gold" is the operative word in women’s golf.

You could argue Olympic gold is coming to women’s golf at the perfect time, with a new golden era of the women’s game appearing to unfold. The LPGA enjoyed golden memories from its founding, with Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls and Patty Berg leading the tour’s start. There was a golden era with Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth leading the way in the '60s. They were great players, in great times for the LPGA, but the women’s game has never been deeper than it is now. There has never been the breadth of international talent that there is today.

Americans dominated in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and much of the '90s.

Since the Rolex Women’s World Rankings were put into place in 2006, players from Sweden (Annika Sorenstam), Mexico (Lorena Ochoa), Taiwan (Yani Tseng), South Korea (Jiyai Shin and Inbee Park), Japan (Ai Miyazato) and New Zealand (Lydia Ko) have reigned as No. 1. Lewis and Cristie Kerr are the only Americans to hold the top ranking.

Exactly how Olympic gold’s importance will weigh in the minds of players this summer depends on the player and where that player is from.

Lewis isn’t yet certain how the Olympics measure up to majors.

“I don’t know,” Lewis said. “It’s up there with the majors. It’s just that it will be different, and nobody knows what to expect. It’s in August. We have four majors before we even get to the Olympics. We have the International Crown. I think once we get closer, we’ll be a little more ready and a little more excited for it.”

So take a deep breath, the race to summer begins Thursday in the Bahamas.