Ko's star qualities give women shot in arm
As the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) makes its comeback from some dark days, it's being boosted by the unexpected success of Stacey Lewis and New Zealand amateur Lydia Ko.
Just three years ago, the LPGA was on thin ice. Commissioner Carolyn Bivens had been forced to resign after a players' revolt. The schedule in the United States had shrunk to just 10 events and sponsors were dropping like flies with the recession in full swing.
But, under the restrained stewardship of commissioner Mike Whan, the LPGA has reinvented itself as a global tour, following a different path from their inward-looking men's counterpart. The tour has 28 events on its schedule for the year and interest seems to be growing, although it will always play second fiddle to the men's tour.
The LPGA has to face problems that the men's pro tour doesn't come across. The game's two biggest stars - Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa - quit early. That's like the PGA tour losing Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. To misquote George Bernard Shaw - losing one player may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.
It is understandable the women want to have families but the tour needs to be appealing enough to give them motivation to return after having children.
In some respects, Bivens was unlucky. She wasn't to know a recession was coming and in her last years the tour was dominated by Koreans, many of whom spoke poor English.
Her efforts to deal with it were ham-fisted - fining players for not being able to speak English - but the reasoning was correct. To connect with fans and sponsors, players must speak the language of the tour's home country.
The ascent of 28-year-old Lewis to the No 1 spot is a godsend because it gives US fans someone to cheer for (the next six players in the world rankings are all Asian). It's somewhat of a surprise because just a year ago it looked like Taiwan's Yani Tseng had a lock on the No 1 ranking for as long as she desired. But last year Lewis became the first American in 18 years to win the LPGA player of the year, then jumped to the top of the world rankings last month.
However, Ko's success is the most unexpected boon. The feats of the 15-year-old phenomenon have given the tour a huge boost in the media. The LPGA usually gets attention only during majors but when Ko was on her run a few months ago it garnered attention around the world.
The last amateur to get the game this much attention turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Although Michelle Wie is more photogenic, Ko has more game and more golf smarts. Ko is unlikely to be sidetracked into becoming a sideshow by competing against men as Wie was.
Every sport needs a great rivalry. The next great American hope is 18-year-old Lexi Thompson, who set the record for the youngest LPGA winner at 16, until it was broken by Ko last year. The dream scenario would be for these two to fight it out at the top for the next 20 years.