ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – After an open week on the schedule, the LPGA heads into a peak September with its fifth major, The Evian Championship this week, followed by the Solheim Cup in Germany. It’s been another year of strong domination by Asian players with an emphasis out of Korea.
The last time the ladies were teeing it up, the winner was 34 year-old Kris Tamulis at the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic in Alabama. Tamulis’ win was one of those rare stories of a first time winner after a long career without a “W.” Two years ago Ken Duke authored a similar story on the PGA Tour, collecting his first and only title at the Travelers Championship at age 44. For Tamulis the victory drought ended 10 years earlier on her calendar but the title came to her in the 189th event in which she made an appearance, two more than Duke.
As unique as the story of a veteran finally cracking the winner’s circle might be, the win by Tamulis highlights and equally strange anomaly on the current LPGA Tour. It was only the third time in 2015 that an LPGA winner was more than 30 years in age. Tamulis joined Christie Kerr and Suzann Petersen in that demographic. By contrast there were more wins by players under 20 so far this year on tour than the three by those north of 30.
We have seen youth be served in recent years on the PGA Tour with the newly anointed Big Three of Rory McIlroy (26), Jason Day (27) and Jordan Spieth (22) now accompanied by this week’s winner Rickie Fowler (26). In men’s golf there is a youth movement. In women’s golf there is a near age ceiling.
By way of comparison, when the LPGA packed up and left St. Louis just 14 years ago, 30-something was where it was at. That year, with a larger tournament calendar, there were a total of 22 wins by players 30 or older. That number is skewed by the fact that eight of the ‘mature’ wins went to Annika Sorenstam, but the total number of individuals with wins after thirty was a dozen, including Karrie Webb, Laura Davies, Julie Inkster, Betsy King and Rosie Jones.
I mention those names because it points to an issue separate from the usual dismissal of the LPGA Tour as now owned by “foreigners.” I have said repeatedly that of greater concern than the repeated success of Asian born players on this the most international tour, is the absence of names recognizable because of their established presence in an elite group of women winners.
One of the multiple winners in 2001 was an Asian, Se Ri Pak, and the Korean who made her professional debut here in St. Louis at Forest Hills, was a marquis name then because she had sustained her success. Kerr and Petersen have enough success on their resume’s over a period of years that in person or on TV they are players golf fans can follow because they know of them.
At that last LPGA edition in St. Louis at Fox Run Country Club you could arrive at the event and scan the pairing sheet and decide beyond Sorenstam if you wanted to see Webb, or Davies, or Inkster, etc. compete. A Tour without recognizable names on the caddie bibs may have parity but it lacks personality.
When I was visiting with the senior women at French Lick a few days back I raised the issue of this odd youth stranglehold on the women’s Tour. I wondered if veteran players, who remained viable into their forties, could account for a season with no player even 35 posting “W’s” in 2015.
Centraila’s Nancy Scranton at first seemed surprised by the statistic because she, like most, had looked more at the nationalities who were winning than the generations who were collecting the trophies. She first pointed to the Asian success stories and observed that while the Koreans win early and often, unlike Pak, they return to their native countries early as well. If 30-year-old winners are an annual exception on the LPGA Tour, 30-plus Asian winners on the LPGA Tour are as rare as panda cubs.
Another thought from Scranton, who picked up her major win at the DuMaurier Classic in the year she turned 30, was the possibility of burnout. With the growing number of teenage girls crossing over into the professional ranks directly out of high school, professional careers that stretch into a second decade may become less likely. Women’s tennis has long been the world of youth, all the more contrasted by Serena Williams breaking the profile with this year’s extraordinary run.
It would be foolish to totally dismiss gender considerations as a factor in reducing the pool of older potential winners on the LPGA Tour. Both men and women become parents during their years on Tour, but the women not only give birth, they also traditionally carry a greater responsibility in raising the children as well. In the St. Louis days, the LPGA travelled a portable Day Care unit to accommodate golfing, mothers on the road. I assume such considerations are still available to the moms on tour, but I would guess the number of clients has been reduced.
Only time will tell if the likes of Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko, Morgan Pressel, and Brooke Henderson will thrive and survive when their youth gives way to seniority in women’s golf. The elites in women’s golf don’t enjoy the kind of financial rewards their male counterparts do which would keep them in the game longer, but road weariness for the LPGA is more likely where commercial travel wears more quickly than the private jets that allow the men to escape the road more conveniently.
It just seems that a professional sports organization that turns over its roster of stars every five to ten years may fall victim to a public who invests their attention less faithfully than in the past.
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