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Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Year-End Look at the LPGA

I thought about doing this last week but decided to wait and give myself some time to mull the 2013 LPGA season over. (Just the LPGA, not the other women's tours.) I'm glad I did, as the Constructivist and Tony Jesselli have done several posts looking at different aspects of the year. I'll be linking to them so you can read over their excellent analyses.

In many ways the LPGA is in very good shape. Tony has posted the 2014 LPGA schedule, which has 32 events -- up from 28 this year -- and that total included 4 new North American events (that includes the new team play event, the International Crown). That's important because, as Michael Whan said in a GC interview, the US is still the home base of the LPGA. While the LPGA wants to be a global tour, it doesn't say much if it can't attract sponsors in its own country!

But as we move into 2014 it seems to me that the depth of the Tour isn't what we might have expected or even hoped for. As I mentioned earlier, there were 28 events in 2013. But there were several multiple winners:
  • Inbee Park, 6
  • Suzann Pettersen, 4
  • Stacy Lewis, 3
  • Shanshan Feng, 2
  • Lexi Thompson, 2
  • Beatriz Recari, 2
Take a good look at that list. Thirteen events were won by only 3 players -- nearly half of the Tour's events. (13/28 = 46.4%.) And 6 players accounted for 19 events -- over 2/3 of the total! (19/28 = 67.8%.) That sounds kinda top-heavy to me.

In addition, 2 non-LPGA members won (2/28 = 7.1%) -- Lydia Ko (CN Canadian Women's Open) and Teresa Lu (Mizuno Classic) -- and we had 3 firsttimers (3/28 = 10.7%) -- Jennifer Johnson (Mobile Bay LPGA Classic), Ilhee Lee (Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic), and Amy Yang (LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship). Those are decent numbers, I think... but that leaves only 4 tournaments to be won by the rank-and-file, just a seventh of the total (4/28 = 14.3%).

Jiyai Shin, Cristie Kerr, Karrie Webb, and Hee Young Park took those.

None of the winners were rookies... and worse than that, the outlook for the rookies isn't all that encouraging. That's worrisome to me. Both Tony and TC have noticed this as well. Let me give you a couple of quotes. The first is from Tony's post about the rookie class of 2013:
First let me say that this has not been a very good year for LPGA rookies. In fact, it may be the poorest in quite some time.

There were 35 rookies who started the 2013 season with lots of hope of establishing themselves. The sad fact is, that only 8 of them retained their playing cards as a result of their 2013 performance on the LPGA tour. That's right, just 22.8%. That is down from 36.3% last year, when 12 of 33 rookies retained their playing cards. Three other players retained their playing cards because of their play on the Symetra Tour this year, and 2 did in 2012.
The second is from the Constructivist's post about the potential rookie class of 2014:
So far, we know that Lydia Ko and Guilia Molinaro will be members of the LPGA's next rookie class, the Class of 2014.  Every other player who got a 2014 card via the Symetra Tour this year is a member of an earlier rookie class.  If that pattern holds true this week in Stage III of LPGA Q-School, then the Class of 2014 could be the tour's smallest rookie class ever.
As I said, this is worrisome. I'll grant an objection, that this year could be an aberration and it means nothing in the grand scheme of women's golf. But as the LPGA rebounds from a schedule decimated by economic difficulties -- and there is a corresponding increase in opportunities to win (or at least finish high enough often enough to keep their cards) -- the newer players don't seem to be keeping pace.

On the PGA Tour it seems to be the older players who are struggling to keep their cards while the younger ones take their places, but on the LPGA Tour it's just the opposite. While the immediate future of the LPGA is bright -- we've got a lot of popular players from all over the world to drive TV ratings -- I'm not sure what it will look like a few years down the road. Why are we having this problem?

My guess is that the problem isn't talent. Rather, it's the new global nature of the LPGA itself. The "veteran" players are better prepared to deal with all the travel and novelty of being in a new culture every week or two.They have a better handle on how to schedule and how to rest to maximize their performance. Consequently, they're the ones thriving in this new environment -- not the youngsters who may struggle just to keep their digestion functioning properly, let alone adapt to the constant travel, the jetlag, and the need to learn new courses quickly. (As an aside, I suspect this is a major reason we're seeing more surprise retirements. After a certain point, the rewards just aren't worth the price.)

Take TC's reference to Lydia Ko and Guilia Molinaro. I guess everybody knows that Lydia is from New Zealand and has traveled the world for two years or so now, but Guilia may be new to you. Here's the opening paragraph from a July 2013 article about her on the LPGA site:
Born in Italy and raised in Kenya, Symetra Tour rookie Giulia Molinaro has lived the life most people only see in the latest National Geographic documentary.
And Giulia came to the US at the age of 16, eventually going to college at Arizona State. Clearly both of these gals know a little about thriving in different cultures. Is it any surprise that they seem able to handle the demands of pro golf on a global tour?

I'm not sure what we'll see out of the LPGA in 2014. While I doubt their win totals will match this year's, I won't be surprised if a handful of players win a disproportionate amount of tournaments again -- and I won't be surprised if they're the same 6 players who dominated 2013 since they all still seem to be in good form. Lydia Ko will be a rookie in name only, and I expect her to play well also.

But I foresee increasing problems for the younger players on Tour. The ability to adapt isn't learned overnight. Hopefully they'll seek out some of the veteran players and get good advice that may shorten the learning curve... but that curve is still going to be steep. It's a survivor's game right now, and survivor skills usually come with experience.

Welcome to the new world of global golf, ladies.

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