Developmental program necessary to allow U.S. women golfers to compete at highest level

May 31, 2018; Shoal Creek, AL, USA; Jessica Korda hits from the ninth tee during the first round of the U.S. Women's Open Championship golf tournament at Shoal Creek. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Developmental program necessary to allow U.S. women golfers to compete at highest level

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Developmental program necessary to allow U.S. women golfers to compete at highest level

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – It’s America against the world on the LPGA in the minds of many. U.S. fans scan leaderboards for red, white and blue. They count the number of victories (four in 22 events). Scroll down the top 10 (none at the Ricoh Women’s British Open). And ultimately ask: Why aren’t more Americans winning?

For starters, Americans are outnumbered on the LPGA. By a count of three dozen to be exact. It’s a trend that will not be reversed, but most likely grow worse over time.

Authorities in the game point to female participation as a key to golf’s growth, and rightly so. To ensure there are plenty of American stars to inspire future generations, it’s time those same governing bodies look to radically change the status quo.

Jessica Korda, the top-ranked American in this year’s British Open field at No. 9, grew up with access to the best America has to offer but understands that’s not the case for most.

“That’s where I feel like the biggest disadvantage is for a lot of American players is there’s not a developmental program,” Korda said. “A team of some sort … somebody sees a little bit of talent in a player, they don’t have the funds to take them to all these tournaments, what are they going to do?”

Eight years ago, Myra Blackwelder, the 1980 LPGA rookie of the Year, began working on a concept she called America’s Golf Team, her answer to the golf federations she’d studied around the world that produced well-prepared junior and college players.

Her current proposal, which she has submitted to the American Development Model, a U.S. Olympic program designed to increase the number of high-performing athletes, is to create teams within each state that compete for scholarship money to help fund their training.

The ultimate plan is to also have regional and national competitions that lead to identifying a national team. In Blackwelder’s detailed plan, the program would cost $15 million annually, with top-tier players receiving $100,000 toward travel, equipment, memberships and instruction.

Blackwelder’s vision to help fund the program includes mixed-team pro-ams that feature America’s best PGA Tour and LPGA pros, who would compete for a purse and the chance to raise millions for the next generation of superstars.

She’ll need to have the blessing of USA Golf, a committee made up of representatives from the U.S. Golf Association, PGA Tour, LPGA and PGA of America to get the wheels in motion.

Eight years ago Blackwelder was ahead of the curve, with few willing to see the necessity of such a program. The conversations have changed, she said. Blackwelder hopes soon to start a pilot program in her home state of Kentucky, using the Bluegrass State Games as a kickoff point. She recently received a donation from the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship to use toward scholarship funds.

At the 2009 Solheim Cup, Blackwelder was given the floor at an LPGA Ambassadors meeting and spoke about the need for a national program.

LPGA founder Shirley Spork told Blackwelder: “I am too old to do this project with you. You have to promise me you will not quit until this gets done.”

2018 began with high hopes for U.S. women

2018 started out so promising for USA golf, with Lexi Thompson on the verge of becoming No. 1 and Americans – including Michelle Wie – winning three of the first four events.

And then it came to a grinding halt. A spent Thompson, winless this season, skipped out on a major to recharge. Wie withdrew midway through the first round at Royal Lytham, revealing that she’s been in great pain most of the season. Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel failed to qualify for the British, the first time both stars have missed the same major since 2004. Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller are on maternity leave.

It’s a transition period in American women’s golf, and there’s promise in the pipeline, as 40-year-old Cristie Kerr notes. But even she’s concerned about what’s being done to keep up in the long term.

“I think they are more prepared,” Kerr said of the rest of the world. “Preparation in our country is go to college. Preparation in their (countries) is a national supportive structure that kind of farms them almost in a sense.”

While there are national teams and coaches and winter training camps for elite players in countries such as South Korea and Thailand, there are significant cultural differences, too.

A life-altering question came to LPGA winner Thidapa Sunwannapura when she was only 11 years old: Do you want to study or play golf?

“You have to choose now,” her father said.

Sunwannapura chose golf, and her academic life shifted. Sitting in classrooms became optional, at the blessing of the school, so long as she passed exams. University degrees for those like Sunwannapura, who essentially attended an advanced School of Golf, are sometimes honorary in nature.

Sunwannapura is one of three Thai players who have won on the LPGA this season, one shy of the American total.

How is it possible that Thailand has the No. 1 player in the world and more victories (five) than American players?

Hard work, Sunwannapura said, coupled with intense parents who, from an early age, heaped great expectations on small shoulders.

National programs give others edge

Sweden’s Pernilla Lindberg had her swing coach on hand at Royal Lytham. Patrick Jonsson actually serves as the performance team coach for professionals in the Swedish national program. When golf became an Olympic sport, Sweden decided to extend federation funding to professionals. Lindberg was only in her second year as a pro and took full advantage of the system. Even the national team’s putting coach was on hand for Lindberg when she won the ANA Inspiration last spring.

Lindberg sees Jonsson every six weeks or so, and the training is free. Jonsson returns to Sweden and relays to members of the national amateur team what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

England’s Bronte Law became part of a national program at the age of 12. The regimented program taught her to practice effectively early on, something she passed on to American teammates at UCLA.

When the national team went away for competitions, Law learned to thrive on her own.

“You would get time away from your parents,” she said. “The parents weren’t allowed to come – so that you could kind of mature and learn how to do it yourself. Now I’m in a position where it’s really nice that I have my family here this week, but I don’t rely on them. Whereas I feel like there are a lot of American players that do. It’s not their fault. It’s all they’ve ever known.”

Marina Alex, 28, began working with instructor Ian Triggs four years ago. If there’s one area of her game that could’ve benefitted early on from a structured program that offered more support, it’s high-level teaching. Alex said Triggs, who for years guided Karrie Webb, frequently works in Asia passing along his decades of experience to up-and-coming coaches.

“We need to step it up, I think, in terms of providing the younger generations high-quality instruction,” Alex said. “… There’s a lot of little things that make up the difference between where American golf was to where it is now.”

To keep pace with what’s coming, America’s pool of elite talent must deepen. The rest of the world isn’t backing down. Gwk

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