Except for a major that lacked drama in the final hour, rarely has the entire month of April delivered so much excitement. Some of the biggest names and brightest stars won all the tournaments, one after the other, even as one of the tour’s best players was sidelined by a back injury.
At least that’s the story on the LPGA Tour.
”It’s a neat time,” said Mike Whan, in his fifth year as LPGA commissioner. ”It’s neat for the players, too. We’ve got a lot of big guns playing some of their best golf.”
The month began with a curious decision to put Paulina Gretzky — known in hockey circles as the daughter of The Great One, and in golf circles as the fiance of Dustin Johnson — on the cover of Golf Digest. It’s almost as if the LPGA staged the best protest possible by showing the magazine what it was missing.
Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie shared the 54-hole lead in the first major of the year at the Kraft Nabisco. If that wasn’t compelling enough, right behind were English teen Charley Hull and Se Ri Pak, the youngest player inducted into the Hall of Fame and who was missing only this major for the career Grand Slam. Thompson built a big lead early and took the drama out of the back nine to win by three, giving her four LPGA victories and a major at age 19.
Thompson spent her early teens playing against PGA Tour-caliber competition — mainly brother Nicholas. Wie spent part of her early teens playing on the PGA Tour. Wie, still the most transcendent figure in women’s golf, bounced back by winning two weeks later in her native Hawaii. It was her first win since graduating from Stanford, and it put Wie at the top of the LPGA money list for the first time.
And then it got even better.
Lydia Ko, a two-time winner on the LPGA before she even turned pro, had quite the week in San Francisco. She was on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people .(No, Paulina Gretzky was not among them.) She celebrated her 17th birthday. And she capped it with a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Lake Merced to hold off Women’s British Open champion Stacy Lewis.
”Stars drive sports,” Whan said Monday afternoon. ”When LeBron is in the championship game, when Michelle and Lexi are battling for a major, when Tiger plays, it makes a difference. Everybody thinks they know who those stars are. Three years ago if you would have asked me, I wouldn’t have said Lydia, Lexi and Stacy. They have built themselves into stars. People always say, `Can you market her?’ I don’t get to choose to do the marketing. They’re the ones who do that.”
Whan also spoke about stars at the end of last season, when three players were vying for top awards in the final tournament and the commissioner had just announced a 2014 schedule that restored some vitality to women’s golf.
”I think sports are at their absolute best – and it doesn’t happen that often – when the best athletes in that sport are having the best years of their lives,” Whan said that day in Naples, Fla.
Maybe there’s more of the best than even Whan realized.
The rest of the year hasn’t been too shabby. Karrie Webb, another Hall of Fame member and the only woman to capture five of the LPGA’s majors, has won twice. So has former major champion Anna Nordqvist. Of all the LPGA winners this year, Jessica Korda has the lowest world ranking. She’s at No. 25.
And the tour’s Big Three from last year – Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen and Lewis – still haven’t won. Pettersen was on course to take over No. 1 in the world until she injured her back and had to miss the Kraft Nabisco. She just returned last week.
The PGA Tour has been without the biggest name in golf for two months. Tiger Woods had back surgery a week before the Masters. He last was seen wearing that red shirt on March 9, before the LPGA Tour even embarked on the domestic portion of its schedule.
In the seven weeks since Woods has been gone, the average world ranking of PGA Tour winners is No. 120. That includes Masters champion Bubba Watson (No. 12 when he won his second green jacket) and Matt Kuchar (No. 6).
Has it helped the LPGA that Woods hasn’t been around? Maybe. Whan sees it differently.
”When Tiger is in the game, it lifts all boats,” Whan said. ”He creates an interest in golf. Maybe it helps us among the golf fanatics who are searching for mojo and we’re providing some. But when he’s playing, there are more eyeballs.”
Whan cares less about comparisons to men’s golf, and more about what really matters. The title sponsors are happy. The fan base across all platforms is growing. Corporate involvement is strong. And the LPGA is the tour that every woman golfer in the world should want to join. Life is good on the LPGA Tour.