Brittany Lincicome’s win on the first playoff hole at the blustery Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic was a personal triumph, the seventh title of her career. But a glance at the leaderboard below her name revealed a second victory — one for all of American golf.
U.S. fans haven’t had much to celebrate the last few years, since Stacy Lewis was ranked No. 1 in the world. In the new age of Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, Ariya Jutanugarn and Inbee Park, among others, “What about the Americans?” has become a common refrain. But after the 2017 LPGA opener, those fears were quelled, at least temporarily.
Lincicome beat compatriot Lexi Thompson, who narrowly missed a 15-footer to extend the playoff. Lewis (-25), Gerina Piller (-24) and Nelly Korda (-21, tied with Thailand’s Pornanong Phatlum), rounded out the top five.
“I knew that everyone at the top of the leaderboard were great players, and it was going to be really tough to get the win on Sunday,” Lincicome said in a phone call shortly after her win. “To see all of the Americans on top of the leaderboard…we’re obviously rooting for each other, which is really cool.”
It’s tough to win on a professional golf tour, men’s or women’s, but new contenders on the LPGA are constantly emerging. Since 2006, there have been 65 first-time winners. More often than not, it’s a battle between American and Korean players; of those 65 first-timers, 25 were from Korea and 16 were from the United States.
But lately, fewer ladies in red, white and blue have hoisted trophies. Thanks in part to rising stars from Asia and Europe, just two Americans will defend titles in 2017, compared to seven champions in 2015 and 13 in 2014.
So, what gives?
If last weekend in the Bahamas was any indication, it’s not a lack of American talent.
“I’m certainly not concerned about the strength of American women’s golf,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan told GOLF.com. “But at the same time, I’m not really sure it’s in the best interests of the greatest [women’s golf] tour in the world to have 80% of them being from America, either. It’s the beauty of the game right now. It’s purely borderless.”
In 2016, a third of the LPGA’s 33 official events were played outside of North America, in 14 different countries, ranging from Australia to Europe and everywhere in between. Over 170 countries worldwide have LPGA broadcasting rights. Sixty-three percent of active players on tour were international, but 41% of 2016 rookies were from the U.S.
One of Whan’s primary goals since taking over in 2010 was to add more U.S. events to attract more players and fans in the country the LPGA calls home.
“When we sat down in 2010 and said, ‘How many girls have we introduced to the game?’ Forty-five hundred a year. That’s not bad, but we’d have to do the next 100 years before we’d put as many girls in the game,” Whan said. “So let’s set a goal by the time we get to the Olympics of having 50,000 girls a year and see if we can really move the needle.”
Following the Olympics, the LPGA/USGA-sponsored program Girl’s Golf reported that over 60,000 girls participated in the initiative in 2016, a 1,000% increase since 2010. Their next goal? One hundred thousand girls by 2020.
Whan believes those numbers provide a road map for a lot of young girls in different countries, including the United States, to pursue a career in professional golf. Many will look to their national heroes to inspire them.
“We may not be winning every week, but you know what? That says a lot for our tour,” said Gerina Piller, who finished fourth in the Bahamas. “Our competition is really good. And they’re young, And they’re up and coming. And the competition is as hard as I’ve ever seen it.”
But for a tour that’s based in the United States, it’s still important for the LPGA to focus on growth at home. In 2017, two of the four new events added to the schedule will take place in the U.S., not including the Solheim Cup in Des Moines, Iowa. That has players excited about the opportunity to bolster the American fan base.
“Young juniors are excited to see where they could be professionally, which is very important to me,” said Brittany Lang, winner of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open (and last American winner on tour before Lincicome last week). “Get young girls into the game, get young Americans playing, and keep great American players coming in.”
Looking broadly at all tours, Americans are still dominating the world golf stage. Of the four international team events – the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, the SolheimCup and the International Crown – the U.S. is currently the defending champ in all of them. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the U.S. was the only team on the men’s side and one of two teams on the women’s side (the other being Korea), to send more than two representatives to the Games based on their world ranking.
“I know we get bashed a lot as American golfers for the way we play,” Piller, who finished T11 in Rio, told GOLF.com. “I wouldn’t say it’s extra pressure. I think in a way it’s kind of an honor and privilege when they do get onto us, because of the expectation…of us being the best at everything.”
Whan isn’t fazed by the perceived American weakness. In his mind, what played out at the Olympics – an international field coming together on one stage – happens on his tour every week; what was once 30 women with a chance to win any given week is now up to 130 women, from 28 countries.
“The depth of talent on the LPGA today is like it’s never been before,” Whan said. “When you tell me the five best players in the Rolex World Rankings come from five different countries, I know it’s probably not what you want to hear, but I say, ‘Perfect.’ I mean, I think that’s perfect. I think that’s what other sports dream to have. That’s what other commissioners are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on – they want the world to pay attention to their sport, not just the U.S. That’s exactly what we have, and that’s why people are trying to figure out how we pulled this off.”
If anything, rumors of an apparent lull in American talent is lighting a fire under the U.S. women.
“There’s no room for error on the tour if you’re gonna win,” said Lang, who tied for 60th in the Bahamas. “Being on tour and being around all the international players, it definitely makes you more patriotic. It’s great, ‘cause they’re making us better.”
“If played well, everyone played well too,” Lincicome said after her Bahamian victory. “Maybe this was finally just my time to shine through.”