NAPLES, Fla. – American women can only hope they’re in a slump, because it looks like something worse.
They have never looked more overwhelmed by Asia’s rise to power.
The Americans arrive for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship this week looking more like victims of a systemic failure than a cyclical blip.
That’s what some of the game’s most experienced eyes are seeing.
“It’s getting a little bit scary right now for American women’s golf,” David Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com. “There’s just a real lack of depth in the Americans coming out on tour. All the real star quality right now is with the Asian players.”
Leadbetter is not alone in believing American women are in a developmental free fall.
“It looks like there’s just nothing out there,” swing coach Gary Gilchrist said of young American prospects. “We should be a powerhouse, but the Asians are coming out younger and stronger, and now they’re coming from everywhere over there.”
South Korea remains the dominant force in women’s golf, but Gilchrist is getting a close-up look at Thailand’s and China’s emergence as potentially the next great forces. Gilchrist coaches Ariya Jutanugarn, a Thai who has soared to world No. 2 with an LPGA best five victories this year. He also coaches Shanshan Feng, the Olympic bronze medalist from China who won back-to-back LPGA starts this fall.
“Americans need to do something about this before they become extinct,” Gilchrist said.
The United States is suffering through a year as strange as it is troubling.
American Brittany Lang won the U.S. Women’s Open in July, the biggest prize in the women’s game. The Americans won the UL International Crown team event in August, when they were declared the “best golfing nation.” And yet, the Americans are still wheezing toward epic failure.
In the 67-year history of the LPGA, Americans have never won fewer than four LPGA titles in a season, but they’ve managed just half that this year. Lang and Lexi Thompson are the only Americans to win LPGA events in 2016.
The Americans were shut out in the Olympics this summer, failing to win gold, silver or bronze medals.
And they have been shut out in the Race to the CME Globe jackpot this week.
No American has a chance at the $1 million CME Globe payout. You have to be among the top nine in the CME Globe standings to have a shot to win the season-long competition, and no American is.
Thompson is the lone American left in the top 10 of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, and Lang is the lone U.S. player among the top 10 on the LPGA money list.
ESPN analyst Dottie Pepper, a 17-time LPGA winner, believes Americans today are lacking something internal.
“The Americans are out-motivated, out-focused and out-driven, and it’s showing up,” Pepper told the Associated Press this week. “Nobody wants to hear that, but all you have to do is look at the results.”
LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin says she has struggled to find a definitive answer to what’s ailing American women, but she wonders if it might be something as simple as a failing generation of American putters. She also wonders if maybe it’s even simpler than that. She wonders if Asia is mostly what ails the Americans.
“These other international players, particularly from Asia, they’re just tag teaming each other right now,” Rankin said. “When an American gets in there with a chance to win, there isn’t one player from Asia to beat now. It’s usually four or five.”
What’s happening to the Americans?
The real answer might be that Se Ri Pak is still happening to them.
There is no overplaying the impact Pak continues to have in Asia, and the challenge she created for the American version of the game. Pak changed everything in ways that are more profound now than they have ever been. She created a phenomenon the Americans still haven’t figured out how to overcome.
Pak still represents what makes women’s golf work in South Korea and what holds it back in the United States.
Here it is ...
Pak made Korean men care more about a woman’s sport than they did the male version of the same sport. She created a flood of male interest in women’s golf. She won over men willing to invest time and money to support the women’s game.
That changed everything.
That’s the Pak phenomenon.
That’s what the American women’s game is missing.
Pak was a Korean hero whose success radiated beyond golf. Her breakthrough winning the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 came with her homeland reeling in hard economic times. Her success was a source of immense nationalistic pride, and she became a symbol of hope for men and women in every walk of life. She transcended the game.
It’s why female South Korean pros are more popular than male South Korean pros.
It’s why LPGA TV ratings in South Korea dwarf Korean PGA TV ratings, even Masters and U.S. Open ratings.
It’s why so many of the top Korean LPGA pros have better endorsement deals than Korean PGA Tour pros do.
How does this correlate to what’s wrong with the American women’s game?
Pak’s appeal to Korean men led to an investment in the women’s game that Americans aren’t able to compete with. The sophistication of Korean junior girls’ golf, the development of Korean national teams and the creation of a three-tiered professional women’s golf tour has fueled a pipeline that won’t quit.
“There is such great support in Korea,” said So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion. “When you have all that support, you feel special and you feel confident, like you can achieve anything. It’s a great system, and it makes you dream bigger.”
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan believes Pak’s impact radiated beyond South Korea’s borders.
“I’ve read Se Ri created a real explosion in Korean golf, but I really think that’s too narrow,” Whan said. “I think what Se Ri did is wake up all of Asia to this opportunity.”
Like many other Korean LPGA stars, Ryu played her way from amateur city associations to the Korean national team, where her expenses were covered competing as an amateur in Asian and international events. The training was intense and highly formalized.
Once a Korean amateur is ready to turn pro, there are three levels to play through, all under the Korean LPGA’s umbrella. There’s the Jump Tour, the Dream Tour and the KLPGA. It’s something akin to Major League Baseball’s farm system.
“Without a doubt in my mind, the KLPGA Tour structure is the best in the world for producing professional tour players,” said Dean Herden, who has caddied for Korean stars Ryu, In Gee Chun and Jiyai Shin. “Star players will always come and go, but having a proper tour structure is so important to the future of the sport.”
The rookie crop of South Koreans that hit the LPGA last year was the strongest ever.
Ten of the top 12 players in the world rankings today are Asian born.
“There really is a pipeline going over there, and they’re coming fast and furious,” Leadbetter said. “The level of talent is absolutely astounding.”
Leadbetter toured China and Thailand in October. He’s opening a series of Leadbetter Kids Programs.
“The golf authorities over here should go see what’s taking place,” Leadbetter said. “The reaction would be, ‘Wow, we better get moving before we get left behind.’ The way they’re going about things in Asia, it reminds me of the way Romania was with its gymnasts, back in the day. They are getting these kids now at a young age, training them and training their minds. They’ve got some amazing young talent.”
Gilchrist believes American golf governing bodies need to look at the challenges.
“When you aren’t performing, you have to look at the process, the system you have in place to support families with young girls who want to be the best in the world,” Gilchrist said. “The thing is, we don’t have one. In America, it’s up to individual families.”
Gilchrist would like to see that change.
“I can’t blame the American girls on tour,” Gilchrist said. “We have to look at what we’re doing and ask if we can do it better. We have to come together and really think about it.”
“Right now, it’s almost like it takes a slice of good luck to come through this system,” Leadbetter said.
The American rugged individualist model that produced Juli Inkster, Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Dottie Pepper doesn’t hold up very well today. They all came through the college ranks, but that isn’t typically the Asian pathway.
By the time an American player graduates from college today, she’s four to five years behind Asian players who turned pro when they were 17 or 18 years old. There isn’t a player among the top 10 in the world rankings this week who attended college. Of the last 11 major championship winners, Brittany Lang is the only one who attended college.
This isn’t to say it’s all about the American system. There are some issues in the American ranks.
Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel were celebrated phenoms who have each worked through some struggles after winning majors. Cristie Kerr is getting older. She’s a mom now, who will turn 40 next year.
And while Stacy Lewis carried the American banner a long time – she’s the only American to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award or the Vare Trophy in two decades – she got married this summer, and she confesses she has struggled to work out the balance she craves in her new life.
Thompson is carrying the American banner now at No. 5 in the world rankings.
Who’s coming behind her?
That’s the big question.
“I can’t see anyone at the moment who looks like she’s going to challenge for the top spot,” Leadbetter said.