Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.
With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.
That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.
That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.
And that’s a magic word in golf.
There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.
Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.
The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.
Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.
A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.
The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.
Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.
For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.
The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.
The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.
“It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida. “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’
“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”
And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.
“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”
The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.
Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.
The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.
Parity was the story this year.
Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.
Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.
The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.
The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.
“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”
If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.
Parity was the theme from the year’s start.
There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.
This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.
Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.
Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.
She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.
The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.