What happened to Asia’s domination of women’s golf?
Michelle Wie’s recent triumph made the U.S. Women’s Open the third consecutive major championship not won by an Asian-born player, something that hasn’t happened since 2008.
Asian players had a stranglehold on women’s golf since the final season of Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, who won 10 majors before retiring at the end of 2008. Taiwan’s Yani Tseng began the Asian barrage, winning the 2008 LPGA Championship at the age of 19 and opening the floodgates.
Starting with Tseng’s victory, Asian players would win 16 of 23 majors from 2008-2013, never going three consecutive majors without a victory. Tseng won four of eight majors in 2010 and 2011, becoming the youngest player (male or female) to rack up five majors. Asian players swept all four majors in 2012. And South Korea’s Inbee Park won three of the five majors in 2013.
Starting in 2009, at least four Asian players finished in the top 10 of LPGA’s money list every year, highlighted by seven in 2012 and six in 2013. An Asian player topped that list every year in the interim.
But that dominance has seemingly come to a sudden end. After Wie’s victory at Pinehurst No. 2 last Sunday, only three Asian-born players are in the top 10 of the money list, with Park a distant fifth, earning less than half of leader Wie’s $1.58 million.
Since Park’s win at the LPGA Championship last August – her third major victory of the year and fifth overall, the Asian “drought” began. Sweden’s Suzann Pettersen won the Evian Championship to finish 2013 and Americans Lexi Thompson and Wie won this year’s first two majors.
While Asian players have been competitive in those tournaments, they haven’t come close to winning. And from the looks of it, they will have a hard time reclaiming that recent dominance.
Asian-born players have won just two of this year’s first 15 tournaments – as compared to half of last year’s 28 tournaments. No Asian player finished in the top three at either of this year’s two majors and no closer than within four shots of the winner.
The Asian stars who once dominated the tour are on the wane. Park was winless for nearly a year before finally claiming the Manulife Financial Classic in Canada in early June. Jiyai Shin, a two-time major champion and former World No. 1, has won just one LPGA tournament since 2012 and will be spending this season mostly in Japan to retool her game.
But the most precipitous fall belongs to Tseng, who was on the verge of superstardom after amassing five major victories at the age of 22. But a decision to retool her swing in 2012 has stalled her career. Tseng has not won an LPGA tournament for over two years and missed the cut in four of the last six majors. She’s currently 33rd on the money list after finishing in the top seven for five consecutive years from 2008-2012.
That the Asian players have lost their tight grip on the LPGA Tour is greeted with glee by many U.S. sponsors and especially the media. Keep in mind that this is the tour that contemplated suspending players for not being proficient in English just six years ago.
After Thompson’s win at Nabisco Championship in April, Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated was beside himself with joy, writing:
Thompson’s victory has profound ramifications for the LPGA, which has been looking for a new face of the tour ever since the double-whammy retirements of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa in 2008 and ’10, respectively. Now, suddenly, there emerges an all-American girl who is the embodiment of Nancy Lopez’s recipe for stardom: look like a woman but hit the ball like a man.
The passage was in itself absurd, as if the seasons-long dominance of Tseng and Park never happened. But the sentiment was unmistakable – Asians aren’t considered the “face” of the LPGA Tour no matter what their accomplishments.
This is the landscape facing Asian players going forward in the LPGA, with ascendant American stars in Thompson, Wie and top-ranked Stacy Lewis. While Park looks to regain her form and Tseng searches for a return from the wilderness, the most promising Asian-born star just might be Lydia Ko.
Born in South Korea and now a citizen of New Zealand, Ko turned pro last October at the age of 16. She’s already won twice on the LPGA Tour as an amateur and got her maiden pro victory in April at the Swinging Skirts Classic while celebrating her 17th birthday.
Currently No. 6 on the money list, Ko is poised to challenge for major victories for years to come and may very well make a run at the American trio for player of the year in 2014. Whether she can become the “face” of LPGA Tour, however, is altogether another matter.