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International Crown Ushers in a Brave New LPGA World
"May I have the envelope please?" And the country with the best female golfers in the world . . . Spain!
But you are not watching movie stars walking away with Oscars. You are at the Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md., just outside Baltimore, Sunday evening. You are watching four top Spanish women golfers walk away with their own Tiffany-designed crown as their nation takes home the big 20-pound, 24-inch-high trophy. And to earn their crown, the Spanish team had to outplay squads from seven other countries in match-play.
But first and in the way of background: =The International Crown demonstrates the current strategy of Mike Whan, the LPGA commissioner. In the beginning there was doubt - even among LPGA Tour players - that this international tournament approach could work. But the LPGA has emerged as a unique and truly global sports entity - a type of golf tour that has not existed heretofore.
I've interviewed Whan many times and saw this coming. He is probably the best strategic thinker in the golf industry.
It's taken a few years under his guidance for the players to trust him and to bond as a single global women's tour. But in November, at the end of the last tournament of the 2013 season, he determined LPGA players were ready to play for their country while under the banner of the LPGA Tour. With women's golf coming up for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games for the first time in almost a century, Whan strategically timed the International Crown to catch the international golf wave.
But who would decide what countries and what players would compete in this LPGA inaugural international tournament? In case you missed the previous Cybergolf article about the LPGA's International Crown methodology, here's a recap - http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/american_team_all_set_for_inaugural_international_crown. The eight countries for the biennial four-person event were selected based on the Rolex World Rankings at the end of last November. The Rolex Rankings began in 2006 and are a mathematical formula. Points are awarded to players based on their performance in particular tournaments AND on the strength of the field. If you want to know more, see http://www.rolexrankings.com/en/faq/http.
The eight countries invited to compete in the International Crown were Australia, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Japan, Republic of Korea, Sweden, Spain, Thailand and the United States. The top-four golfers in each country with the highest individual rankings (at the end of March 2014) made up their teams. Stacy Lewis on the U.S. team came into the tournament as the world's top-ranked female golfer.
A key factor in determining how the eight countries were selected for the Crown competition meshes with the LPGA global strategy. The Solheim Cup, which will be played in the off-years years from the Crown, pits the U.S. versus Europe. But since many of the top LPGA Tour players are not born in the U.S. or Europe they're ineligible to participate in the Solheim Cup.
So the underlying value of the International Crown is that it includes golfers from Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Thailand. And, by the way, those players - with their huge television women's golf coverage - attract more global sponsors. The "Swinging Skirts," a nonprofit Taiwanese association that supports junior golf in that country, sponsored an LPGA Tournament this season. And JTBC, the leading cable company of Korea and an affiliate of Samsung, also underwrote LPGA tournaments.
But the underlying question for me is always: Will this tournament help grow women's golf especially in the United States. Will the International Crown encourage more U.S. women and girls to take up the game? (Am I the only person who wondered if the Rolex crown logo inspired the "crown" tournament name? Men may like a claret jug; but as a woman, I love the crown!)
Twenty-pound Tiffany-Designed Trophy
My answer is probably not - at least in the short term. If the United States had won the Crown and received lots of publicity, perhaps it might have encouraged a few more girls and women to think about playing golf or to play more golf. The fact that the Crown tournament had very little broad media coverage in the U.S. is one of the saddest outcomes of this innovative women's golf event.
On Saturday - while the U.S. was still a possible finalist or even winner - I sent a message to Whan asking him what impact the Crown might have on U.S. women's golf. I was watching the tournament on the Golf Channel (prime and full coverage!), but I was concerned about the slim coverage of the event in the U.S. broad print media.
A few minutes later, Whan responded. He told me there were already 500 articles about the Crown in Asian papers and 155 countries were covering all four days of the tournament. I was impressed - that's really huge!
He also described the many buses and fans from Thailand, Korea and other countries who came to Caves Valley. He ended the note by telling me that if I were at the tournament, I would understand and appreciate the large turnout and the positive impact it will have. I hope he is right.
But one of the major challenges in growing women's golf in the U.S. has really nothing to do with the International Crown. For many TV viewers (especially women golfers) seeing a final score of "3 and 2" was probably a mystery. (That meant the match winner was three holes ahead with has two holes left to play.) The announcers, Judy Rankin and Terry Gannon in the main TV booth did a super job. Judy was not just reporting - she was educating viewers about match play. I hope she writes a book on match play!
But when Gannon used the term "dormie," which he did often, many viewers may have switched to another channel figuring this sport and scoring was beyond them. "Being dormie" means that the leader is ahead by the number of holes remaining. Going dormie is stressful because the player trailing has to win the remaining holes to force a "halve," or a tie, in the match.(All-square is the equivalent term.)
The graphics and charts used to report the scores were not easy to follow, especially in the final rounds. Both the "Pool" score and the "Team" score were hard to parse out in the few seconds they were shown on the screen. There's room for improvement in that. The best graphics were actually in the Leaderboard section of the LPGA website.
In part, I put some blame on the overwhelmingly male PGA golf professionals who manage most of the golf facilities, who have not accepted their responsibility to educate women golfers about women's professional tournaments and formats. They hesitate to incorporate match play in women's league play - even in a minimal way like a Nassau Color War. They do not send out notices to their members (now easy to do with email) and remind them of the LPGA tournaments and some notes about them and players to watch. I'll save those observations and suggestions for another article.
I'll end with a final note about my reactions to the players - both the winners and losers. The Spanish team was gracious in their TV interviews.
The U.S. team was disappointing in defeat not so much because they lost but because of their comments in the post-tournament press conferences. Enough about Lexi's ball rolling back into a divot "forcing" her to use her putter. I bet she is going to try that shot with some other clubs very soon. Maybe she should have played short and chipped on to the green - maybe into the cup. That wasn't the time to rehash those options; it's too late.
The most disappointing comments were from a couple of our top players. One suggested she was not going to hang around for the final ceremony - might go the mall instead. Another said she wouldn't watch the finals because, in her words, "Who would I root for?"
Most fans go to tournaments not because they're rooting for a particular player (though some do) but because they are hoping to see great golf. "Root for a great golf shot" is how I would have answered that LPGA player. "Root for the game!"
But kudos to the gracious Stacy Lewis, the No. 1 player in the world, who stuck around on Sunday and spend some time in the commentator's booth. She is a class act and the U.S. can and should be very proud of her.
Here's to the LPGA, the vision of Whan and to the players in the inaugural International Crown Tournament. It's a brave new world for the LPGA. And its future looks good. To follow the LPGA, log on to www.lpga.com and sign up for its newsletter.
Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.