Asia’s best female golfers have some work to do.
The LPGA Tour just concluded its early-season Asia-Pacific swing on Sunday, ending on a dramatic note as Paula Creamer holed a 75-foot eagle putt to win the HSBC Women’s Champions tournament in a playoff in Singapore.
As the Tour shifts to the West Coast of the United States, Asia’s leading golfers are still in search of their first victory. It’s the first time since the LPGA revamped its schedule in 2009 that there are no Asian winners after the first two months of the season.
To be sure, Inbee Park is still ranked No. 1 in the world after winning three of the five LPGA majors in 2013. She’s just off to a bit of slow start this year – by her standards – with a second in Thailand two weeks ago and tied for fourth in Singapore. Park is the leader of a strong South Korean contingent that has dominated the LPGA for the past decade.
But that dominance is eroding a bit. While there are still nine South Koreans among the top 25 players in the latest Rolex World Rankings, their positions have slipped down from the end of last year. In the last 16 LPGA tournaments since last July, there has been just one South Korean winner: Amy Yang won on home soil in Incheon last October.
Even Park admitted her hold on the top ranking is tenuous. She hasn’t won a tournament since claiming a third straight major at the U.S. Women’s Open last June.
“I think rankings points-wise, there’s not much gap between one to three. So obviously there are going to be some changes this year,” Park, who’s been No. 1 for 47 weeks, said in Singapore last week. “My goal would be maybe to maintain the No. 1 spot at the end of the year, but during the year, whoever has a good first week I think could change the rankings.”
Park would not want to replicate the fate that befell Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, who entered the tournament in Singapore last March at No. 1 and had held the top ranking for 109 consecutive weeks. But after a swing change that has mostly gone awry, Tseng has plummeted in the World Rankings to No. 42. She has not won an LPGA event since March 2012 after becoming the youngest player to amass five major victories at the age of 22.
Tseng hopes to turn around her fortunes after a miserable 2013 and she’s off to a somewhat promising start in 2014. She ended her victory drought by winning a non-LPGA event in Taiwan in January and then finishing fifth in Thailand two weeks ago – her best showing since tying for third in Thailand last year.
“Last year was gone very fast. I didn’t reach my goal, didn’t win any tournaments and it’s kind of very up and down with my game, too. I was putting lots of pressure on myself,” Tseng said in Singapore, where she tied for 35th. “But I feel very relaxed this year and I just try to forget about everything that I’ve achieved because that’s already done. I try to not think too much, just play like I am a rookie. Now I just try to get that feeling back and enjoy every moment I have on the course.”
While Tseng looks for the long road back to the top, the most promising Asian player this year might indeed be a rookie.
Lydia Ko, who was born in Seoul but grew up in New Zealand, is easily the most ballyhooed LPGA rookie since Michelle Wie turned pro in 2009. Ko won’t turn 17 until April and had already won consecutive LPGA Canadian Opens in 2012 and 2013 as an amateur. She made the cut in all five LPGA majors last year, finishing second at the Evian Championship last September.
Ko’s professional career is off to a good start, with top-10 finishes in the year’s first two tournaments as she’s already rocketed up to No. 4 in the World Rankings. There will be only more attention focused on her as the LPGA events shift to the U.S.
And Ko’s already getting advice from old pros. Rocco Mediate, who famously lost the 2008 U.S. Open playoff in heartbreaking fashion to Tiger Woods, says the thing Ko must guard against is the temptation to drastically alter her game.
“That’s the most dangerous thing these kids can go into,” said Mediate during his appearance at last week’s New Zealand Open. “Play with what you’ve got, do what you can do with what you have because you know you’re really good with it … I hope she doesn’t mess with it too much because what she has obviously works pretty well. So let’s not go and find some new guy to destroy it, because that’s what will happen.”
Ko split with Guy Wilson, who had been her coach since she took up golf at the age of 5, last December after announcing her decision to turn pro. She’s now with David Ledbetter, a swing guru who has been accused of “destroying” Wie’s game. Wie has just two victories as a pro – and none since 2010 – after having been the most famous female golf prodigy as a teenager.
Will history repeat itself with Ko? The 2014 season will have much to reveal.