SBJ/August 5 - 11, 2002/Opinion

For U.S. players, LPGA is foreign soil

An unusual thing happened at the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament a few weeks ago. An American won.

Juli Inkster's victory over the green acres of the Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., ended a string of six consecutive "majors" on the LPGA Tour won by non-Americans. On top of that, foreign players had captured six of the previous seven Women's Opens, with four of their number getting to hoist the trophy over that span.

Foreign domination of the tour doesn't end there. Far and away the best week-in, week-out woman golfer since 1995 has been Annika Sorenstam of Sweden. Probably the two next best are Karrie Webb of Australia and Se Ri Pak of South Korea. Last year, none of the top five placers on the LPGA money list were Americans.

The future? The 2001 LPGA rookie of the year was Hee-Won Han of Korea, and the best collegiate player of recent seasons has been Lorena Ochoa, who turned pro in June at age 20 after collecting a record tournament haul at the University of Arizona. She's from Mexico.

If American athletic chauvinists in the country-club set are squirming over those developments, they've got company. These days, a Chinese is the NBA's No. 1 draft choice, a Japanese is the reigning most valuable player in baseball's American League and Europeans make up almost a third of NHL rosters. Big-time tennis has been thoroughly international since its advent, both in its competitors' lists and tournament schedules. It spends more time outside the United States than in it.

The women's golf tour, however, remains firmly rooted on these shores, and therein lies the rub, and the interest. The question of how well Americans will support a sporting enterprise that's ruled by foreign performers is in the process of being answered. Other entities no doubt are watching.

So far, the results are mixed. Not surprisingly, the LPGA chooses to consider its glass half full, citing gains in the portion of its television take that comes from abroad (about 50 percent against about 15 percent five years ago), increased foreign merchandise-licensing revenue and a growing number of non-U.S. hits on its Web site.

Foreign companies such as Asahi Ryokuken, Samsung and Mizuno have put their names on LPGA tournaments staged in this land as well as on their native soil. Foreign press attention has swelled. Says Karen Durkin, the LPGA's senior vice president and chief marketing officer: "We're giving more attention to global marketing than we used to, and getting more in return. That has to be a plus."

But the news isn't all rosy. This year's 35-stop LPGA Tour is down from 38 stops last year and as many as 40 in the past. American TV ratings for July's U.S. Open were strong (perhaps in consequence of Inkster's leading role), but, overall, women's golf still distantly trails women's tennis, where American players loom largest.

That Americans haven't connected with the LPGA's new stars showed up a couple years ago in a survey by the business school at Indiana University; asked to name their favorite woman golfer, most respondents picked Nancy Lopez, who was nearing retirement and hasn't won a major tournament in a dozen years.

Relatedly, player agents say that non-U.S. women golfers have a harder time landing individual endorsement contracts than Americans. For instance, Gaylord Sports Management represents both the Australian Rachel Teske, who finished 11th on last year's LPGA money list, and the American Wendy Ward, who was 12th. It notes that Ward went into the current season with five sponsors to Teske's one.

It could be that we'll warm up to the new links queens. It could be that we won't. Whichever, one shouldn't expect Inkster's win to spark a quick U.S. resurgence in the sport. She's 42 years old. None of the six women who finished immediately behind her were Yanks.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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