When talking about women pro golfers we are primarily talking about the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Organized in 1950 by a founding group of 13 female golfers from the United States, the LPGA succeeded the Women’s Professional Golf Association (WPGA) which had formed after WW II. These were bold ladies who just happened to be damn good golfers.
These women pro golfers were barrier breakers in this up till now male centric game. Most notable among the group were Patty Berg, Helen Hicks, Marilynn Smith, Louise Suggs, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Babe Didrikson was the best athlete of the group and Maryland Smith lived up to her nickname, “Miss Personality”. These women all had one thing in common … they were tremendously gifted golfers and golf teachers.
In the Beginning
While struggling to establish a season long circuit of professional golf tournaments, this founding group also wanted to include a Teaching Division which they did in 1959 by establishing the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional membership. Focused on “teaching teachers to teach”, this part of the newly formed LPGA grew faster than tournament development did in the beginning.
The founding year of the LPGA included 15 tournaments which grew to 23 LPGA tournaments by 1960. Tournament growth continued, reaching 38 tournaments in 1980. Since then the LPGA tournament tour has ranged from 27 to 36 LPGA Tournaments. Not PGA numbers, but respectable just the same. The PGA has much more history than the LPGA, having formed way back in 1916.
Notable Contributors to Early LPGA Growth
In the 1960s the LPGA Tour was dominated by Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth. In the 1970s Judy Rankin and Nancy Lopez added their names along with Kathy’s to the growing list of LPGA Players of the Year. The LPGA was growing in popularity and in the 1980s added more new names to the LPGA Player of the Year list to go along with Nancy Lopez. These included Beth Daniel, JoAnn Carner, Patty Sheehan, Betsey King, and Pat Bradley.
Up to this point, all the dominant Women Pro Golfers were from the United States. But in 1987 the first non US LPGA Player of the Year, Ayako Okamoto of Japan won this prestigious award. The growing international presence of the LPGA was becoming very noticeable. This was especially true during a seventeen year run from 1995 to 2011 when all LPGA Player of the Year winners were from countries other than the United States.
The LPGA Goes International
The seventeen year run of non US LPGA Player of the Year winners started with Annika Sorenstam from Sweden in 1995. She became a dominant golfer on the LPGA tour winning Player of the Year award eight times from 1995 up to her retirement from competitive golf in 2008. Laura Davies of England won in 1996, Karrie Webb of Australia won in 1999 and 2000, and Loreno Ochoa of Mexico won in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.
Yani Tseng of Taiwan (now the Republic of China) won in 2010 and 2011, and then we saw United States Woman Pro Golfer Stacy Lewis winning the LPGA Player of the Year award in 2012 and 2014. In 2013 the LPGA Player of the Year was Inbee Park of South Korea. Asian countries are well represented in the LPGA and this particularly applies to South Korea.
This note worthy growth of LPGA golfers from South Korea has been quite phenomenal over the last fifteen years or so. So it's possible that Inbee's Player of the Year award in 2013 is just the beginning of a long run of the LPGA Player of the Year awards going to a South Korean women pro golfer.
Keep your eye on Sei Young Kim, Amy Yang, Na Yeon Choi, and Hyo Joo Kim in addition to Inbee Park. These South Korean LPGA golfers are all in the mid year 2015 Top 10 LPGA money winners as is Lydia Ko who is from South Korea, but currently resides in New Zealand.
The Top 100 LPGA Money Winners
The United States and South Korea are clearly dominating the Top 100 LPGA money winners list. Currently according to midyear 2015 money rankings there are 5 golfers from South Korea and 3 from the United States in the Top 10. In the Top 50 there are 15 Korean golfers and 16 golfers from the United States. South Korea and the United States make up more than half the Top 100 LPGA money winners.
But it’s not just about South Korea and the United States. The LPGA has truly achieved a global reach and it is growing. The 2015 LPGA tournament schedule includes tournaments in 12 countries around the world in addition to the United States including: Australia, Bahamas, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, Scotland, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.
What demonstrates the international move even more is the mid year 2015 LPGA Money Rankings. Twenty one different countries are represented in the Top 100 money winners list.
(13) Mid year LPGA Top 100 Money List count by country.
Rapidly Growing Korean Presence in the LPGA
The increased number of South Korean women pro golfers is even more interesting when compared to the men pro golfers on the PGA from South Korea. Here there is only one golfer in the Top 100 rankings, so it's curious what has been the source of the Korean growth on the LPGA tour. It is believed by many that this phenomenon was triggered by a young South Korean golfer named Se Ri Pak. In 1998 she became the first women pro golfer from South Korea to win an LPGA major tournament. She won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open golf championship at the age of 20 and became the youngest women ever to win a major LPGA tournament. It is this event that many believe started the evolution in women’s golf in South Korea.
Korean families started encouraging their daughters to follow in the foot steps of Se Ri. Soon there was a national commitment supporting them. Se Ri Pak continues to be a roll model for young Koren female golfers more than 15 years after she introduced the golfing world to South Korea. The result has been a growing number of South Korean women pro golfers on the LPGA Tour over the last 15 years … and they are winners. There’s no question that Se Ri may be largely responsible for the number, but why they tend to be such good golfers is a puzzle.
Daughters of South Korean families are exposed at an early age to a very competitive environment. Cultural influences include a high degree of patience and an unparalleled willingness to practice. But most of all it might be the over whelming family commitment of these aspiring young golfers to support their daughters in their pursuit of becoming leading LPGA golfers. Indeed it might be considered a national commitment.
The surprising thing about the growth of South Korean daughters on the LPGA Tour over the last 15 years is that none had won the coveted LPGA Player of the Year award until Inbee Park did it in 2013. But when you look at the current mid year 2015 LPGA Rankings there are 5 South Koreans in the Top 10, 9 in the Top 20 and 12 in the Top 30 LPGA money winners. So it’s possible that we may see a South Korean run on the LPGA Player of the Year award real soon.
Inbee Park looks like she may have a lock on the award in 2015. With only 12 more scheduled LPGA tournaments to go (out of a 32 tournament schedule in 2015), she is the leading money winner by a considerable margin. The second leading money winner so far this year is Lydia Ko of New Zealand who is 18 years old. Early on in 2015 Lydia was the leading the LPGA rankings becoming the youngest to do so at 17 years old. She is South Korean born and educated, but currently resides in New Zealand and proudly represents that country on the LPGA tour.
You've Come A Long Way Baby
So yes ... the LPGA has come a long way from it's early beginnings way back in 1950. International growth, particularly from Asian countries, has been phenomenal and is driving a growing world wide interest in women's pro game. Feeding this growth are strong amateur golf programs and a growing number of very competitive College and University golf programs for young women.
These amateur programs are telling us that the international growth in womens pro golf is likely to continue. A scan of the mid year 2015 Top 20 Amateur Rankings reveals 3 from Spain, 2 from France, 2 from Sweden, and 1 each from Australia, England, Ireland, Mexico, and South Korea to go along with 8 from the United States. Truly the future looks bright for womens pro golf.
Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question. I will reply as soon as possible. One of the questions I'm still researching is an explanation for what makes South Korean women golfers such good golfers.
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