Spain takes inaugural International Crown

The winning International Crown team of Spain: Azahara Munoz (from left), Belen Mozo, Beatriz Recari and Carlota Ciganda.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Mike Whan called Saturday at the International Crown one of the greatest Saturdays in LPGA history. It had all the drama and pressure of a major championship Sunday. And it delivered what fans have wanted for years: a U.S. vs. South Korea showdown.

On Sunday, those who tuned in for the singles finale might have learned what many have known for years: These Spanish girls are a blast.

It’s something Whan had envisioned from the start. The Crown introduces fans to players they might not otherwise know such as the spirited Mozo, who’s fond of trash-talking and clutch shotmaking.

After Spain dropped from first to last in their pool Friday, a determined Mozo told one LPGA official, “Keep shining my crown.”

Carlota Ciganda, Azahara Munoz, Beatriz Recari and Mozo have been playing together since they were young girls, winning European Team Championships long before they could drive. All but Recari played college golf in the U.S. The International Crown format in many respects came more naturally to Spain than Solheim Cups.

“It’s our team, it’s so special,” said Mozo, who clinched the winning point on the 16th hole with a 10-foot birdie. “You put another four girls and maybe not so much. But we have always played together. We have always won together.”

Mozo, who got her shiny sterling crown after all, said that despite being underdogs in the seedings, she knew Spain had an advantage over so many other teams because of their longstanding friendships.

“I knew that top players, they don’t have camaraderie,” Mozo said. “They will end up killing each other in match play and that’s not the way to play.”

Spain’s 15-point total put it four ahead of Sweden. South Korea and Japan were tied for third with 10 points.

The International Crown once again proved that in match play, anything can happen.

“You look at Taiwan swept us, we swept Spain, but then Spain swept Taiwan,” said Stacy Lewis after Saturday’s loss. “So I mean, what does that tell you? Nothing, basically.”

The U.S. swept Spain but then missed qualifying for Sunday by one stroke. Then a feisty Spain turned around and won it all, sweeping all four singles matches.

“I love match play,” said Carlota Ciganda who, along with teammate Azahara Munoz, helped Arizona State win the 2009 NCAA Championship at Caves Valley. Ciganda drummed Na Yeon Choi, 8 and 6, on the strength of seven birdies in 12 holes to set the tone for her team.

While Spanish players have the opportunity to compete on a Solheim Cup team every other year, the International crown gives them the unusual chance to play for Spain alone.

“Our blood boils when we have the anthem and see the flag,” Recari said.

For a player like Pernilla Lindberg of Sweden, who has yet to play in a Solheim, the Crown could mark a pivotal time in her career.

“It just feels like I have gotten to show myself on the biggest stage so far that I’ve been on,” said Lindberg. “It feels like I’ve really taken advantage of that.”

The same could be said for Thailand’s Pornanong Phatlum, who played a key role in ousting the Americans and then posted a 1-up victory against I.K. Kim in singles. The Crown could be a launching pad for Phatlum, previously known for wearing tights no matter the weather.

World No. 1 Lewis came back to the course Sunday to appear on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” and sit in the booth during the telecast. She offered some insight into what the four Americans have learned about team competition in their third consecutive loss (counting two Solheim Cups).

Lewis said they put too much focus on personality. The success of the Cristie Kerr/Lexi Thompson pairing, she said, came as a surprise.

“Let’s just put two people together and go play golf,” said Lewis.

The 2016 International Crown will be held at Rich Harvest Farms, site of the 2009 Solheim Cup. Course owner Jerry Rich was at Caves Valley earlier in the week but had a viewing party back home in Illinois on Saturday. Whan said Rich is already planning routes from all over the Chicago area to bring in as many nationalities as possible.

The event could move to Asia as early as 2018, where it’s likely to dwarf the Solheim in terms of media attention and fan support.

Whan’s goal from the start was to create something different. From captain-less teams to walk-up music on the first tee to a third-round cut, he wanted everything about this event to be unique and not a knock-off of something in the men’s game or a dusting off of a tournament that once was.

This was to be a celebration of the global nature of the women’s game, and a reason for fans and media to turn their attention toward the LPGA for something other than a major.

To that end, the International Crown was wildly successful. And it’s only going to get bigger from here.

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