On return to Baltimore area, tour boosted by U.S. success

The last time a women's professional golf tournament was held in the Baltimore area, the results mirrored the world rankings.

At the 2009 LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, won easily by a 22-year-old Swede named Anna Nordqvist, the Americans were barely an afterthought in a sport dominated for nearly a decade by international players.


When the LPGA tour returns next month, with its inaugural International Crown team event at Caves Valley in Owings Mills, it will be with a power balance that has tilted noticeably back to the United States.

The Americans regained the top seed from Korea in March in the eight-country, 32-player event. Stacy Lewis regained the No. 1 spot in the Rolex World Rankings with her victory Sunday in the ShopRite Classic.

The win by Lewis was the fourth straight and sixth in seven events by an American player, the best streak for the United States on its home tour since Americans won five times in six events in 2007.

"I do think it's very important that Americans win on U.S. soil," said Lexi Thompson, a 19-year-old Floridian who is ranked sixth in the world and will be one of the four players representing the United States at Caves Valley.

Speaking Monday at a downtown luncheon to promote the July 24-27 event, Thompson tried to remain diplomatic.

"I always say it doesn't matter who wins or where you're from, it's a matter of the talent you bring to the table," Thompson said. "It's great to see that Americans are doing so well this year — in the last year, for that matter. I hope we continue to do that."

Golf fans apparently have taken notice. According to Kraig Kann, the tour's chief communications officer, television ratings for LPGA events have increased by 20 percent, including six straight events "that were double digits better than they were a year ago."

Kann points to the recent past, when players such as Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and Lorena Ochoa of Mexico dominated the LPGA, "but the tour was fairly healthy." Even when Yani Tseng of Chinese Taipei was the No. 1 player in the world, Kann said the LPGA "wasn't off the map."

But the resurgence of Lewis and others — including former teenage phenom Michelle Wie, now back in the Top 10 — has helped create a buzz about women's golf that was missing the past few years.

"Does it help that the No. 1 player in the world is an American? There's no question that it's a positive for a tour that is based in the United States," Kann said. "Does it help that Americans have won four tournaments in a row? Absolutely, it helps."

Still, because the LPGA is branding itself as a "global tour" with 33 events in 14 countries, Kann does not believe the LPGA is "reliant only upon the Americans playing well for us to have success."

But Katherine Kirk, an 11-year LPGA veteran who will help represent Australia in the International Crown, said: "I think it's critical that we have a huge American presence on tour and that those girls play well.

"Even though I'm an international player, I think it's awesome how many American girls have won this year. It generates more press, and obviously more fans are tuning in when they see Americans win."

The recent upswing by the United States, which now has more players than Korea ranked in the top 10 (3 to 2) and top 20 (7 to 5), has helped create something of a global rivalry that will play out at the International Crown as it does in the Solheim Cup, which pits Americans against Europeans every two years.


"There's always that kind of patriotic element to it, and obviously Americans love the Solheim Cup," Kirk said. "I think we'll see that here. And then the fact that we have seven other countries competing will just draw a global audience. Everyone is going to want to tune in to see who's winning."

So Yeon Ryu, a member of the Korean team that also includes longtime No. 1-ranked Inbee Park, said she felt left out whenever she watched the Solheim Cup on television.

"I'm so excited to play in this new format. I was a bit jealous when they played the Solheim," Ryu said Monday.

Ryu said her country's recent drop in the rankings will help "inspire" her team when it comes to Baltimore. But Ryu said she and other foreign-born players already have benefited from the American resurgence.

"We need a lot of U.S. sponsors and different companies involved. If an American player is playing well, American companies get more interested in the LPGA," said Ryu, who is ranked eighth. "Now that Stacy has become the No.1 player in the world again, it means a lot to the LPGA."