LPGA prepared for takeoff
In my last article for espnW, I wrote about the LPGA Tour being a tour on the rise. Since then, I would say it is on an even steeper upward trajectory.
With 32 events on the 2014 schedule (up from 23 just three years ago), an new international competition that mirrors the worldwide membership of the LPGA, and now a season-long points competition and significant year-end bonus modeled after the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup, commissioner Mike Whan is really starting to deliver on the hope and promise he came into the position with four years ago.
For the first time since 2001, the LPGA's official season kicks off in January, important if you are to remain on the golf radar all year long. Year-to-year momentum and messaging is difficult to maintain if you're not beginning a season until late February or early March. It is especially challenging when that start isn't in North America.
This is a big, early start for the LPGA. The 2014 tour begins just nine weeks after the 2013 season ended and kicks off in the Bahamas, not somewhere across the international date line.
International Crown truly worldwide
The International Crown will be played in late July, featuring the top eight countries on tour and the top four players from each of those countries in a match-play format. Considering the LPGA truly was golf's first worldwide tour, this event is even more appropriate and necessary. My only criticism would be the timing of the cutoff for the players representing those eight countries. They will be determined before the year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco, on March 31. This simply is too early and does not assure that those playing the best golf will be representing their countries when the Crown rolls around. This is like Tom Watson having to finalize his Ryder Cup team, which doesn't compete until late September, somewhere around Memorial Day.
Perhaps the most heated battle for player representation will come from the South Korean contingent. With four players in the top 10 in the world rankings and eight in the top 20, this will be a blast to watch. The depth of talent among the South Koreans almost warrants two teams!
Speaking of a talented South Korean, Jiyai Shin, a two-time major champion and former world No. 1, resigned her LPGA membership last week to spend more time at home and focus on the Asian tours. She was a joy to cover, with a wonderful story and manner with the media. She will really be missed.
2-for-1 Opens a great deal
Another hot topic to keep an eye on will be the men's and women's U.S. Opens being played in consecutive weeks at Pinehurst No. 2. I know there are a lot of naysayers, but I am one of those in favor of the move and understand the decisions made to play these two championships back to back on the same course.
Why the men first and women second? Agronomics. The course, which will have little, if any, rough after its most recent (and brilliant, I might add) restoration/renovation, will be easier to soften a bit for the women than to firm if the men were to play the second week. No one can predict what will be up Mother Nature's sleeve, but if she's relatively kind and consistent, it will be a wonderful way to see how the men's and women's games both compare and contrast, as the philosophy will be to have all players playing similar shots into the greens.
Will some of the grandstands seem a bit empty the week the women play? Sure. But that hasn't stopped the Oakland A's or Jacksonville Jaguars from being a success when it comes to the business and competition of professional sports. Volunteer commitments and assignments are, according to the USGA, in fine shape, so no need for concern there. There will certainly be the need to adjust and be flexible if weather interrupts the men or there is a Monday playoff, but that is a workable "if," not a reason to shoot down this 2-for-1 U.S. Open.
Newcomers bring talent infusion
Lastly, there is an exciting infusion of new talent on the 2014 LPGA Tour. I think the rookie class of '88, with the likes of myself, Liselotte Neumann, Laura Davies and Danielle Ammaccapane, was one of the strongest ever, but this one may rival that.
Lydia Ko, already ranked fourth in the world with three professional wins (two as an amateur), should be the best of the bunch. A concern would be her recent departure from her longtime (and only) coach, Guy Wilson, for David Leadbetter. Leadbetter seems to be a more mechanically minded teacher, and I never detected an ounce of that from the Wilson-Ko combo. Ko, however, has made a terrific move in hiring a former caddie and club professional for Jack Nicklaus, Scott Lubin. Confident, mature and reliable, Lubin will treat this job as a serious but fun one and, I believe, be a very good match for the 16-year-old. She has all the tools and, most important, the attitude to challenge the Big Three of LPGA golf, InBee Park, Suzann Pettersen and Stacy Lewis.
Also keep an eye on South Florida's Jaye Marie Green, just 19 years old and the winner of December's qualifying tournament by a whopping 10 shots. She lost to Ko in the final of the 2012 U.S. Women's Amateur and finds the comfort of good friend Lexi Thompson already on tour as a solid mentor to ease some of the inevitable butterflies of a rookie season.
Last mention goes to South Dakota's Amy Anderson. A former USGA Girls' Junior champion, she is tall, personable, comfortable in the spotlight, long off the tee and will really appreciate being outdoors for the early months of the season after spending most of the previous winters inside practicing in a golf dome while becoming one of the best collegiate players to ever play the game.
Needless to say, I am very upbeat about the LPGA right now and excited to cover two of their major championships on ESPN this summer. I hope you'll join in for more updates here on espnW, and certainly for our live coverage.
Happy New Year and happy reinvigorated LPGA!