If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind that American women have lost their dominant position in women’s professional golf, that doubt was surely obliterated this past Sunday afternoon. When the final putt dropped in the U.S. Women’s Open, 13 of the top 18 women on the leaderboard were Asian born and raised. But it’s mainly the South Koreans who have taken over the women’s game, like marauding Visigoths who put paid to the Roman Empire in the 5th Century. I’m not sure which empire collapsed faster… the Roman, or the American women professional golfers.
Okay, I’m sure many of you are thinking, c’mon, one tournament result doesn’t tell a whole story.
Yeah, well, just so ya know, the highest finishing American player, tied for 11th and seven shots back, was Marina Alex, who currently stands in 31st place on the LPGA money list. Only two other Americans finished in the top 20. One of them was Cristie Kerr, who, just short of her 40th birthday, is enjoying a bit of a second wind on her career, but is surely as shocked as anyone that she seems to be one of only a couple of U.S. women who are carrying the country’s flag these days.
Of the top 30 names on the LPGA money list to date this year, only nine – or 30% — are Americans. It would take too long to research the money lists of 2007 or 1997, but I betcha that number would’ve been around 70% a decade ago, and 95% two decades ago.
Speaking of decades, those of us who’ve watched women’s golf with more than passing interest over the last 50 years or so – that group would include me – can’t fail to have noticed that South Koreans have made an inexorable great leap forward in women’s golf in less than 20 years since the landing of the first Korean probe in 1998. That year marked the arrival of Se Ri Pak, the then-20-year-old who won two LPGA majors in her first year on the American tour.
Relatively unnoticed at the time, and almost certainly dismissed then as a fluke by everyone connected with U.S. women’s golf, in retrospect, the Pak landing has had about as similar and as devastating an impact on American golf as the arrival of white men did to native American life and culture some 500 years ago. Whereas golf had been hardly a blip on the radar of Korean girls’ athletics, Pak’s success – along with her comely appearance and sparkling personality – all of a sudden created a stampede toward golf in her motherland, especially for young girls with focused parents. (Pak had been the first Korean player ever on the LPGA. Today, 18 of the top 50 players are of Korean descent.)
That combination of relentless drive, focus, impeccable training, and obviously a surfeit of talent at the top levels, has clearly resulted in the tsunami we’ve seen over the last five years in particular.
I’ve remarked here before that what is especially impressive in the success of the South Koreans is the fact that many if not most of the chosen few uprooted themselves at very tender ages – as early as 12, most around 15 – and moved to America with golf success firmly in their sights. Some left home and family altogether, almost all came with only a smattering of English words in their vocabulary. Undoubtedly homesick, they had to learn a new culture, new language, new diet, new people, new customs, as well as stay focused on their golf, golf, golf. Turn the situation around and try to think how well you would’ve done if you’d moved to South Korea at 15. I bet 999 out of 1,000 American girls would’ve been on the first jet back out of Seoul.
Anyway, while the Korean invasion has happened slowly but most surely for several years, this U.S. Open really put a stamp on reality for me. The way I see it, for the next three or four seasons, it’s going to be lanky Lexi Thompson and Canada’s Sweetheart Brooke Henderson carrying the standard for North American players versus a non-stop phalanx of Koreans, Thais, Chinese and Japanese players. Yes, there are some Scandinavians in the mix, some Mexicans, a couple of Europeans, and a couple of upcoming Brits. But there’s nothing comparable to what the Korean players have achieved, in such a short period of time.
Personally, I love these Korean women and the example they set… in swing speed, in approach, in attitude, in temperament, and in overall deportment. On the course and off, from what I’ve seen, they’re just lovely people.
But I do worry somewhat that their success may already be putting a damper on the continuing interest in women’s golf among young American and Canadian girls. Lexi and Brooke notwithstanding, I wonder if there aren’t a lot of 15-year-old girls who might have been drawn to golf and a college scholarship, followed by the grind of the Tour, thinking, “jeez, what’s the point? The Koreans are unbeatable.” I don’t know if that’s happening, but I can see how it might.
And if the indigenous supply erodes, so will corporate sponsorship, eventually. And ergo, the women’s tour itself.
We can only hope that that won’t happen, and that there’s already an undercurrent of defiance growing in North American college dorms and living rooms, and that we’ll see a resurgence of North American competitiveness not too far away.
Time will tell, but it’s time to get a move on.