LPGA is more international than ever
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The major tournaments are a good time to take stock of women's golf. And here's what we know after the LPGA Championship: The tour is more international than ever. Yet one American in particular, Stacy Lewis, is establishing herself as a regular contender.
Grace Park, who's retiring after a dozen years on tour, was one of the first South Korean players to have success in the United States. She talked during this, her last tournament, about how much the LPGA has changed during her career.
"It's a worldwide tour now," she said.
The LPGA was still an overwhelmingly American-dominated tour into the mid-1990s, when European and Australian players began to have more consistent success. The Vare Trophy, awarded annually to the player with the lowest scoring average, went to an American every year from its 1953 inception until 1995.
That year, though, Sweden's Annika Sorenstam earned it -- and no American has won it since. The winners in that time have been from Sweden, Australia, South Korea, Mexico and Taiwan.
Similarly, the LPGA player of the year award –- determined by a points system that rewards top-10 finishes, with double weight given to majors -- hasn't gone to an American since 1994.
This LPGA Championship had what's become a standard for most events on the tour: a multinational leaderboard every day.
The first-round tri-leaders were from Spain, Italy and the United States. South Koreans led the second and third rounds. And the tournament was won Sunday by Shanshan Feng, the first player from mainland China to take an LPGA tour title.
The good news for U.S. golf is highlighted by Lewis, who has won twice on tour this season and finished tied for second at the LPGA Championship. At 27, Lewis is just starting to hit her peak. At No. 2 overall, she's the top-ranked American player, trailing only Taiwan's Yani Tseng. And in the standings for player of the year, Lewis now is leading Tseng, who had a difficult time this past week.
Lewis is pleased with her climb up the player-of-the-year standings, but knows it's a long way until November, when that award is finalized. Overall, she's very happy about where she is as a competitor. Her breakthrough victory came in 2011, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, but she's got a different mindset now.
"It's walking up to the first tee and knowing you can win a golf tournament," Lewis said. "After I won the Kraft, I wondered if I would win again. That doubt's kind of gone, and I think I can shoot a good score any given day. I feel a lot more confidence in myself."
By contrast, Tseng is feeling just the opposite. She barely made the cut at the LPGA Championship after rounds of 76 and 75, and it didn't get any better on the weekend. She shot 74-76 for a 13-over total of 301, tied for 59th.
This is like being lost in the wilderness for Tseng. Although she maintained an admirable semblance of her usual cheery disposition when talking with reporters Sunday, she also made it clear she's struggling mentally.
"I'm going to retire; too much pressure," she joked, initially. Then came the serious stuff.
"I was very up and down. One shot can cost my confidence, and it's very hard to get it back," she said. "I'm trying very, very, very hard to hit it straight and close to the pin. But I'm just thinking too much. I feel very disappointed with how I played this week.
"I almost cried on the golf course, but I kind of hung in there to hold my tears. It's really a good experience for me, but I feel bad for the fans that I didn't play well and have a good performance for them."
Considering that Tseng is just 23 and already has five majors among her 15 tour victories, she's definitely being too hard on herself. It's a matter of perspective -- and at this point in her fabulously successful young career, she understandably doesn't have much of that.
Tseng has won three times this year, but the last was in March. She finished in the top 12 in each of her next four events. Then she plummeted here at Locust Hill, where she won at 19 under par last year. She said she will talk to her coach, Gary Gilchrist, and her team of advisers about how to proceed. Take a little mental break, or get back out and grind?
"I've never been through this. Maybe I'll go back to ask Annika," Tseng said of Sorenstam, who befriended her when she bought the Swede's former house. "I never talked to her about this situation. I don't even know what I should ask.
"I'm hitting the ball, like, not even close. We have a big tournament coming up. I have three more weeks I can prepare for the Open, and we'll see at that time if I will have more confidence to play."
That's the U.S. Women's Open, to be played at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., from July 5-8. That course devoured most players when the Women's Open was first held there in 1998; Se Ri Pak won then at age 20 and really kicked off the South Korean surge in women's golf.
Speaking of tough courses, Locust Hill -- after yielding consecutive winner's scores of 19 under the past two years as host of the LPGA Championship -- was much more a major-worthy monster this year. Feng won at 6 under.
Will this tournament return here to a course that has hosted an LPGA event since 1977? Wegmans, the sponsor, has strongly seemed in favor of that, as has Locust Hill and the surrounding golf community. But the LPGA's contract with Wegmans/Locust Hill expired after this event.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan indicated that negotiations for the LPGA Championship's future here likely will occur in July, by which time we'll also know if this is a real funk for Tseng or just a blip.