On a sunny, 83-degree Saturday in Phoenix this past weekend, I stood next to the 12th tee during the third round of the LPGA Tour’s JTBC Founders Cup event. There was a back-up, for some reason, and I didn’t mind. Hall-of-Famer Karrie Webb and defending champion Stacy Lewis, ranked third in the world, were paired together. They made small talk with each other, with their caddies, with fans. They kept loose with waggles and practice swings. Ahead of them, in the fairway, Morgan Pressel and Hee Young Park waited to hit, until Victoria Elizabeth and Anna Nordqvist, winner of the 2014 Honda LPGA Thailand event, cleared the green. I volunteered to the folks around me that Nordqvist was a former Arizona State star and had made the first hole-in-one in Solheim Cup history last year. Behind Webb and Lewis, gallery favorite Michelle Wie and Eun-Hee Ji stood idly on the far back tee, waiting their turn to move to the tee box at this 438-yard, par-4. We all stood at the edge of the tee ropes, merely a few feet away from a bevy of the greatest women golfers in the world. By my estimate, there were 80 of us – total -- watching the action unfold.
Why aren’t there more people watching the ladies? Part of me doesn’t understand why there weren’t more spectators. (The other part doesn’t mind, because the up-close access is fantastic.) What I do know is that they offer a much better product than a generation or two ago: better athletes, better techniques, better results. Scoring was as hot as the desert sun. The leaders had scorched the Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge for 16-under-par totals with 25 holes to go. The quality of play was outstanding.
Wildfire Golf Club couldn’t enjoy a more convenient location, in north Phoenix, at the confluence of several major freeways. Parking is pretty easy. Admittedly, the distant holes such as the 12th at the hybrid layout (nine holes from the resort’s Arnold Palmer course and nine holes from its Nick Faldo course) are a bit of a trek, but the ground is flat, so it’s not too traumatic getting out to watch the play.
I noticed larger galleries the day before on holes closer to the entrance and clubhouse, but they were no bigger than you might see in a U.S. Amateur. Here we were at the 12th tee, on “Moving Day” and the sparseness was startling. The men’s equivalent would have been standing 15 feet away as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy wandered by.
Two twosomes later, Inbee Park and Lizette Salas strolled onto the tee box and were soon joined by tall Jessica Korda and So Yeon Ryu, ranked fifth in the world. I whispered to those around me that Inbee was the world’s No. 1 women’s golfer, and that she had captured the first three majors of 2013. I mentioned how the 21-year-old Korda was the daughter of former tennis great Petr Korda and that she had won the Bahamas LPGA event earlier this year. Ten minutes later, leaders Lydia Ko and Mirim Lee appeared. The 16-year-old Ko impresses me most among the young stars, not only with her game but also her demeanor. I sat next to her at a dinner at Mission Hills Haikou in China when she was 14, and I was floored with her maturity.
Ko wouldn’t win on Sunday. She closed with a respectable 70, for 18-under-par, but was blitzed by the veteran Karrie Webb, who ripped a final-round 63 to win her 41st LPGA Tour event by a single stroke. The 39-year-old drained a 20-footer for birdie at 18, her fifth birdie in her final six holes, in posting a back-nine 30. Her victory tied her with the legendary Bade Didrikson Zaharias for 10th-place on the all-time LPGA victory list. What drama. What history. What great golf. I just wish more people were watching.
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