As we count down the days to the 2014 LPGA season tee off, I want to bring two key events into focus, the LPGA International Crown and the Race to the CME Globe. Both are new events in the LPGA schedule. Both are culminations of efforts over the past two years by Commissioner Mike Whan to expand and internationalize the LPGA Tour. Both promise increased financial benefit for Tour players and heightened fan involvement in women’s professional golf.
Mike Whan has done a fabulous job of bringing the LPGA Tour out of the doldrums and into the professional athletics mainstream and the 2014 season is the first fruit of his labor: (1) there are 32 events this year, with new events added to the US as well as Asian schedules; (2) there’s more television coverage for all events, a delightful turn of affairs for women’s golf fans; (3) there’s the International Crown, the new mid-season match play event that will be scheduled biennially, opposite the Solheim Cup, and will showcase the top talent from eight qualifying nations in a match play event designed to “crown” the top golf nation; (4) there’s the Race to the CME Globe, the LPGA’s new million dollar version of the PGA’s Race to the FedEx Cup and the men’s European Tour Race to Dubai. Put it all together and it means a lot more time for the fans to enjoy chicks swinging sticks and a lot more money for the players who are swinging those sticks
The Race to the CME Globe is an individual race, a marathon, actually, that will begin in a week at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic and continue right on through the spring, summer, and fall to the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. I’m working on a spreadsheet to keep track of the points players accumulate because the scoring, while transparent, is complex and convoluted.
The LPGA International Crown is another matter, once that’s engaging me as a fan in a fashion a bit different from the Race to the CME Globe. Eight countries have already been designated participants in the 2013 International Crown: South Korea, United States, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Thailand, Australia, and Taiwan. The country decision was finalized after the 2013 CME Group Championship last November. The players who will constitute the teams from these countries, however, will not be finalized until after the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April. Here’s where the fun begins. The players are actually involved in two distinct races, the marathon Race to the CME Globe and, for players representing the eight selected countries, the sprint to be included on their country’s International Crown team.
With South Korean players dominating the top of the Rolex Rankings it’s tempting to assign the edge to the South Korean team. After all, Inbee Park, who’s held the top spot in the Rolex Rankings for 40 weeks, is likely also to lead South Korea’s International Crown team and it’s also likely that So Yeon Ryu, Rolex Ranked fifth and Na Yeon Choi, Rolex Ranked seventh, and IK Kim, Rolex Ranked tenth, will join Park on the South Korean team.
No other country enjoys the advantage the South Koreans seem to have going into the Crown, all likely players currently holding top-10 Rolex Rankings.
Not so fast. There’s another factor at work in this equation. Not a single South Korean player is bringing match play experience to the Crown. In contrast, all the potential US team members have played on at least one Solheim Cup team, and Christie Kerr, Paula Creamer, and Stacy Lewis have played on Solheim Cup teams a combined total of ten times. Lexi Thompson, a rookie at the 2013 Solheim, is a six foot tall powerhouse who gets better as the competition gets hotter and who’s publicly credited her 2013 Solheim experience with her late season wins at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. What the likely US team lacks in Rolex Ranking power could well be more than balanced out by the depth of their collective match play experience they’ll bring to the International Crown.
A similar claim can be made for the Spanish team. Three of their four likely team members are also bringing Solheim Cup experience to the Crown. Beatriz Recari, Azahara Muñoz, and Carlota Ciganda, although less experienced than the likely US team, far more experienced in match play competition than the probably South Korean team. All three are fierce competitors and know how to bring that competitive spirit into a laser-like focus for a team event. Similarly, Caroline Hedwall, the only player to ever go 5-0-0 at the Solheim Cup and another power player, will be likely to lead the Swedish team, and Anna Nordqvist, who carded an ace at the 2013 Solheim and has three Solheim Cups on her resume, will be likely to join her. Don’t discount the Spaniards and the Swedes going into the International Crown.
There is a reason those who play in a Solheim Cup speak of that experience with reverence. It is a transformational moment at both the personal and the professional level, much like participation in Olympic competition. Does the empowerment that seems to emanate from the Solheim transfer to other events and other venues? Can the raw athletic superiority of the South Korean team overcome this empowerment? We won’t know until the scores are posted on the International Crown leaderboard in July, but the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic will be our first opportunity to assess the players strengths and weaknesses, and to compare the performances of those who are bringing Solheim Cup experience into the 2014 season.