This is not your mother’s LPGA, although "Mom" still might recognize a few familiar faces this week at the Safeway International.
Today’s version of the women’s tour is all about global golf. For those who want to stay in the know during the next four days of play at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club in Gold Canyon, here’s a tip: buy a program.
Fans will need one, as 73 players — or slightly more than half of the 144-woman field — are from abroad. Especially confusing is the large contingent from South Korea, as four of its 21 players are named Kim — Ju-Yun, Mi-Hyun, Soo Young and Young.
Actually, there are five Kims playing in the Safeway, as American-born Christina Kim also is entered. With so much international intrigue, even such veteran LPGA players as Meg Mallon and Beth Daniel have trouble keeping track.
Except when it comes to which foreign player is taking home the trophy. And with 95 players representing 24 countries, the possibilities are endless.
"It’s amazing," said Mallon, a former East Valley resident who now lives in Florida. "I was looking at that big board they put up for this tournament, and they have the (past 10) champions listed, and there’s not one American. . . . That’s got to change."
It’s not just the Safeway, where Patty Sheehan was the last player from the USA to win way back in 1993. It’s every week, and seemingly every season, as foreign domination has become the theme of women’s golf during the past five years thanks to superstars such as Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, Australia’s Karrie Webb and South Korea’s Se Ri Pak, the defending Safeway champion.
Last year was typical of what’s happening now, as foreign players won 24 of 32 tournaments. The first win by an American in 2003 did not occur until nine weeks into the season.
If that’s not enough of a slap in the ol’ red-white-and-blue face, Golf World released its preseason list of top 10 LPGA players for 2004 and only one American — Cristie Kerr (No. 8) — made the list.
Mallon, who was one of only five Americans to record at least one victory last season, said that despite some negative publicity on the subject, the LPGA’s foreign affair is really not that big of a deal.
"It’s not new; it’s been happening for a while," she said. "The international players, that’s just one theme to go along with several others — like women playing in men’s events, 40-year-olds beating 20-year-olds, and the kids who are playing out here getting younger and younger."
Daniel, who also got one of those eight American wins in ’03, said there is a reason that the foreign flavor to the LPGA seems so rich.
"America is not producing enough great junior players, and that’s a shame," said the Hall of Famer, who holds the distinction of winning this event in 1982, when it was held at Hillcrest in Sun City.
"Sweden and Korea, they’re doing it right with lots of corporate dollars and truly great programs. Especially Korea, which is pumping out wonderful players at an incredible rate, mostly by bringing them to America, where they learn the game under the guidance of our best teachers."
Daniel said that the U.S. Golf Association needs to take a long, hard look into what is happening, because it is not going to change without a major overhaul.
"The problem with American (junior golf) programs is that they’re all grass roots," she said. "We get kids started nicely, but we don’t follow through. If a kid can’t afford it, they never get the chance or the competition they need to reach their potential."
It’s not just the international players who are making a big impact, Daniel added. The youngsters are also knocking down pins with regularity.
"There’s been a big turnover (on tour) since the mid-1990s; we’re a lot younger as a tour now," she said. "And then you get kids like Michelle Wie, an exceptional talent who seems to be the real deal. . . .
"So the faces have changed somewhat dramatically out here, and you don’t have the (Pat) Bradleys, (Patty) Sheehans and (Nancy) Lopezs any more. As a result, (the fans) have lost some of that familiar, comfortable feel they had with us."
That’s not all bad, Mallon and Daniel agreed.
"Change is a good thing to a certain extent," said Mallon, who is in her 17th season and recently surpassed $7 million in earnings. "And it’s coming faster and faster. "Look at Michelle Wie. She’s the whole package, a golfing savant. She probably knows more about the game at age 14 than I do at 40." Besides, no matter the country or age on the birth certificate, the LPGA just keeps getting better, Daniel added.
"I think there is a tendency to focus too much on where a player comes from, or how old they are, or whatever the issue is, instead of what a player can do," she said. "For instance, last week someone told me there were only 44 Americans in the field down in Tucson. It didn’t really matter, it was still a great tournament." That it was won by a foreigner — England’s Karen Stupples — should also come as no surprise.