OAKMONT, Pa. -- A record 91 international players were in the field for the U.S. Women's Open this week at Oakmont, and that is a testament to the sport's increasing growth and popularity around the world, as any LPGA Tour official or player is happy to boast.
And yet, it is also a testament to one reason the tour continues to occupy secondary status in the pecking order of American sports, and why the emergence of South Florida native Cristie Kerr as the No. 1 player in the women's game has been hailed by one and all, at least in this country, as the best thing that could ever happen.
|Fifteen-year-old Alexis Thompson drew some criticism for turning pro at such a young age. (Getty Images)|
More than 40 South Koreans now play on the LPGA circuit, with a similar number trying to get there from the tour's Duramed Futures developmental circuit. That may be great news in Seoul, where some of the Asian nation's very best players are accorded rock-star like status. But in this country, American golf fans would be far more likely to pay for tickets or to stay tuned to golf telecasts if players like Kerr, Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie, among others, were in contention or at the top of the leader board.
If this all sounds a tad like Ugly American-style xenophobia, guilty as charged. But it's also the elephant in the big tent that is women's golf these days, even if no one likes to admit it, and even if so many of those South Korean players have compelling backgrounds and fascinating interests.
Did you know, for example, that Jiyai Shin, a delightful young woman who began the season No. 1, has a beautiful voice and a best-selling CD on the market back home? She's known among her fellow players as "Chalk Line" because she hits the ball so straight down the middle.
Or that My Hyun Kim is married to Won Hee Lee, the Olympic gold medalist in karate at the 2008 Beijing Games. Or that veteran Seon Hwa Lee is called "The Terminator" on tour because four of her victories came in tournaments sponsored by companies that have since pulled the plug on their LPGA events. Or that 2007 Open champion Inbee Park loves to ski and play the piano.
Didn't think so.
Maybe that's why this week's Open has been so compelling. Going into the final round, Kerr, Brittany Lang, Stacy Lewis, Christina Kim (born and raised in the U.S.) and even 15-year-old Alexis Thompson were very much in the hunt, and that certainly had to be some good news for NBC, the network that handled the weekend competition.
There are plenty of compelling American stories to tell, as well, and that can only help keep an audience around for what is shaping up to be a titanic struggle to the finish on one of the most difficult golf courses any of the women in the field have ever played.
Kerr, the first U.S. player to reach No. 1 since the world rankings began in 2006, believes that the more Americans at the upper echelons of the game only means more young American girls will be paying attention, and perhaps deciding to make golf their sport of choice.
"I think what I did the last couple of weeks is big for American golf," Kerr said earlier in the week. "That's why I got into playing golf. I would watch these tournaments on TV. I would see the Nancy Lopezes and the Juli Inksters, Patty Sheehan winning these kind of tournaments. I said 'I want to do that. How did I get exposed to it? Through tournaments like [the Open].
"It's especially big for American golf because there are so many little girls out there that we see in the practice rounds. And if you can touch a couple of them, maybe they'll turn into great players in 20 years. That's really the way I got involved. I would imagine that's why those fathers are bringing those daughters here."
One daughter who brought her father along this week was Alexis Thompson, the 15-year-old protégé from South Florida who was only five shots out of the lead when the third round began late Saturday afternoon. Her dad is caddying for her this week, and at the moment, she has to be considered something of a symbol for the future of American women's golf.
She also is the subject of some controversy. Some critics, including a few of her fellow players, wonder if she's a tad too young to have turned professional two weeks ago, even if she is in the hunt this week.
"I was surprised," Kerr said of Thompson's decision last month to play for pay. "I was almost 18 when I turned professional, and that was pretty young back then. I played with a girl who was 14 in a practice round [Monday]. They don't carry themselves like kids any more. People that young, it's kind of like a business to them. They want to do it to make money and have a career.
"People have asked me what advice I would give [Thompson]. I really don't know. I just wish her well. I've said over and over again, I hope her parents are doing right by her, looking out for her best interests."
Thompson is adamant that they are.
"They don't ever say it to my face," Thompson said when asked about the criticism. "I don't take it personal. It was my decision and my parents have been very supportive. I just wanted to take my game to the next level. It would be pretty bold to say it to my face. It was my choice."
American Stacy Lewis, also very much in contention, played with Thompson in the first two rounds and was properly impressed, saying that "she doesn't act or look like she's 15. Her game is more mature than her age."
Still, she also seemed to have reservations about Thompson's decision to turn pro. Lewis played college golf for four years at the University of Arkansas before turning pro and said "I would encourage everyone to go to school. It's the time to grow up. You can make mistakes, you can be a kid. I don't know why people would pass that up."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@aol.com