OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The Americans are in a resurgent march, taking back strongholds lost.
The South Koreans are in a reluctant retreat, looking to reassert their status as the dominant force in women’s golf.
Welcome to the International Crown, where it’s all about honor, country and posting low scores.
The inaugural biennial team event begins Thursday promising to play upon nationalistic pride, and no countries have more of that riding on this week’s outcome than the United States and the Republic of Korea. That’s because they’re such heavy favorites here at Caves Valley Golf Club. They’re the top two seeds with seven of the nine highest-ranked players in the field coming from their rosters. If anyone else wins this week, it’s a giant upset.
With the United States taking the No. 1 seed from South Korea on the last day of team qualifying for the International Crown, there’s a growing restlessness among South Korean fans used to seeing their women excel.
“American players are playing very well this year, and it obviously hasn’t been like the last couple years,” said Inbee Park, the highest-ranked South Korean at No. 3 in the Rolex world rankings. “We definitely feel the pressure, and we definitely feel like we have to step it up.”
The South Koreans have won more LPGA titles (49) since 2008 than any other nation in the world. They’ve won more majors (16) than any other nation since 2001.
The tide, however, is changing in the women’s game. The Americans are on the rise, already having won more LPGA titles this year (11) than they have in any year since the turn of the century. Meanwhile, the South Koreans have almost been shut out, with Park claiming their lone LPGA title.
The Americans also have claimed the first three majors of the 2014, marking the first time they’ve done that since 1999.
And topping it off, American Stacy Lewis seized the No. 1 ranking from Park last month.
“I think we do have more pressure than other countries, because a lot of Korean people care so much about the results,” Na Yeon Choi said. “We got our four players together here, and we talked about how we have to be together this whole week, to show them back home that we are one, we are together. It’s not individual here. It’s a South Korean team. Hopefully, we will make something good happen for everyone watching us.”
A year after Park became the first woman in 63 years to win the first three majors of the year, the South Koreans are feeling pressure to produce more success. They’re hearing questions back home about what’s wrong with them this year.
Park, Choi and fellow teammates So Yeon Ryu and I.K. Kim made a pact Tuesday. “We decided we’re not going to read any newspapers, no surfing the Internet,” Choi said. “Sometimes that affects focus, emotions. We’re really trying to focus on what we can do, and after the tournament, we’ll see the results.”
It was just a little more than a year ago that the Americans found themselves in the South Koreans’ shoes. With Park winning at Sebonack, it marked the fourth time in five years a South Korean had won the U.S. Women’s Open. It also marked the 10th consecutive major the Americans failed to win, the longest winless spell in the history of American women’s golf. Lewis would end that drought by winning the Ricoh Women’s British Open, and now the Americans have won four of the last five majors.
The International Crown is being broadcast live in South Korea. If there’s more pressure on the South Koreans than on any other nation here, there’s an upside to that. They’re used to it. They’re used to grandiose expectations with women’s golf more popular than men’s golf back in their homeland.
“They play that way week in and week out,” says Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, who will help call the action for Golf Channel this week.
For their part, the Americans say they don’t view South Koreans as rivals on tour week to week.
“The media likes to clump everybody together, based on where they're from,” Lewis said. “As players, I don't think we do that. I don't think we group Inbee and So Yeon Ryu and we say we want to beat the South Koreans.
“But I think in this competition, I think they're a great team. I don't care what the numbers say. I think they're going to be a hard team to beat.”