Kudos to LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan for the 2014 inaugural International Crown! The concept was intriguing and the reality of the event was extraordinary. The eight-country match play contest produced some riveting, edge-of-the-seat golf. Match play will do that, particularly when the competition is balanced. I confess, coming in, before last Thursday, I was skeptical. I anticipated a tournament dominated by the Republic of Korea and United States teams, a replay of the Inbee Park vs Stacy Lewis hegemonic tug-of-war that’s preoccupied women’s pro golf for the past 18 months. How mistaken I was! One look at the final scores tells quite a different tale. Look closer and the story gets better!
Olé! Olé! Olé!
First, there’s 5th-ranked Team Spain! Olé! Olé! Olé! Indeed!
Then there was Belen Mozo, self-declared captain of Team España, world ranked 112th, playing her third year on the Tour, with three career top-10 finishes and no victories on her resume, with an average long game and a middling short game according to the performance stats. Mozo galvanized Carlota Ciganda, Azahara Muñoz, and Beatriz Recari. She received an ordinarily reserved, controlled, circumspect Recari into her arms in a universally recognized, exuberant, full-body embrace between two victorious athletes following Mozo’s tournament-winning putt Sunday afternoon. What I saw was sheer, unadulterated magic! Mozo played like a woman on fire. I want to see more of that game.
Watching Team Spain rip through their singles matches on Sunday, I kept trying to imagine what Juli Inkster, who was on the course commentating for Golf Channel, might be thinking; and I concluded that Captain Inkster is facing a task of enormous proportions as she readies Team USA for the 2015 Solheim Cup.
The Big Fall
Then there’s top-seeded Team USA, sidelined at the conclusion of the four-ball matches Saturday afternoon, even unable play their way into the Sunday wildcard spot. What happened to those four top-ranked golfers who surely believed they were on their way to an ultimate victory when they stepped up to the first tee on Thursday? And what was Captain Inkster thinking as she watched that debacle unfold over three painful days?
Thirty-three year old, obviously pregnant Mikeala Parmlid, playing for Sweden, a team that started the International Crown ranked sixth and finished in second place earned a spot in my memory bank. Parmlid helped Pernilla Lindberg put two points on the board for Sweden on Saturday and her fought her way through the 16th hole on Sunday against an unbeatable Beatriz Recari, proving yet again that pregnancy is not a disease and that women athletes can, should, and do compete while gestating.
Last week at this time I was pondering a small mystery: Who is Sakura Yokomine? Playing for 3rd-ranked Team Japan, the diminutive Japan LPGA player teamed up with Ai Miyazato to score two points against the Swedes on Thursday, another point on Friday as they played their Aussie opponents to an all-square ending, and two more points against the Korean team on Friday. Yokomine was impressive during the 4-ball matches: her 7 birdies and 3 eagles helped put Japan in a very competitive position going into the Sunday singles matches where her performance against the more powerful, more experienced So Yeon Ryu was nothing less than stunning.
I’m thinking we’ll see more of Sakura Yokomine on the LPGA stage but the introduction I received to Sakura Yokomine has reshaped my understanding that the LPGA isn’t the only stage where great golf is played by champion golfers.
Yani Tseng and Phoebe Yao’s four-ball victory over Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson on Thursday and their bloody battles to the finish against the Thai and Spanish teams on Friday and Saturday weren’t enough to keep underdog Chinese Taipei in the game on Sunday, but watching Tseng’s joyous reclamation of her game during the three days of four-ball matches was utterly delightful. It was also a stark reminder of the critical and decisive role golf’s mental game plays in determining competitive outcomes. I hope Tseng’s able to hold on to what she recovered at the Crown and take it back to her individual stroke play game.
Finally, as I watched the Karrie Webb-Minjee Lee mutual admiration society at work and as I watched four Spanish women who’ve been playing team golf together since they were children gain dominion over the entire eight-country/32-player field at the International Crown, I also took a fresh look at junior golf. I thought deeply about the potential of the LPGA/USGA Girls Golf initiative to change individual lives as it grows the game; and I reflected on the powerful, transformative capacity of the International Crown images must have had among the event’s global audience, particularly in those regions where women’s participation in the sport is linked to a broader transformation of traditional gender roles.