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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Time is right for LPGA's new global event

By Mechelle Voepel

You often would hear either some exasperation or wistfulness in many players' voices when the subject came up at the Solheim Cup, which it inevitably did. Going back to the 1990s, when the Solheim was just establishing itself as a sporting event, there was a nagging question.

The USA's best women golfers versus Europe's best was fine. … But what about the rest of the world?

The Solheim participants tended to be a little defensive about that topic, even if they understood why it was raised. The non-participants usually sounded as though they were just longing to be included.

And as Asian golfers became such an important a contingent of the LPGA tour, the question kept looming larger.

Now, it has a good answer.

"Finally," is how U.S. player Stacy Lewis expressed her feelings about the newly announced International Crown. It's a biennial, four-day team competition that will feature the top four players from the top eight nations as determined by Rolex rankings of the players from those countries.

It will begin in 2014, not a moment too soon for those of us who follow women's golf. I have to admit to feeling downright giddy: It's like a present you always wanted but weren't sure you'd ever get.

I can recall covering the 1998 Solheim at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, and how -- as fun as it was -- there was still a sense that something was missing. That year, South Korea's Se Ri Pak was the sensation of women's golf. Then 20, she had won two major championships, become a national hero, and symbolically poured Miracle-Gro on the developing young female golfers in her country.

Also then, Australia's Karrie Webb was an emerging star who, like Pak, would become a Hall of Famer. But neither Pak nor Webb was eligible for the Solheim Cup, which had debuted in 1990 as the women's replica of the Ryder Cup.

The reality is that women's golf has limited windows to attract the so-called "average" sports spectator/viewer in the United States. A team event that involves the concepts of national pride and patriotism? Well, as hokey and contrived as that can sometimes seem, it's definitely a hook. One that women's golf needs.

The Solheim has it, and thanks to the likes of Annika Sorenstam and Laura Davies, Europe was able to compete with the Americans enough to make that compelling theater in its developing two decades. We will see the 13th Solheim Cup this August in Parker, Colo. But still …

The growing tide of terrific players from outside the United States and Europe was not involved in the Solheim. There had long been discussion of a Presidents Cup-style event for the women, but years passed without it happening. Then an event from 2005-08 called the Lexus Cup pitted Asian countries against the rest of the world. But it still wasn't the right answer and didn't last.

So while the luster of the Solheim Cup was maintained, a void remained. When the global economic crisis of recent years took its toll on the LPGA -- as it did with most other entertainment industries -- the dream of a successful, truly international team event for women pros seemed as distant as ever.

However, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan began to speak of it more enthusiastically last year. He could see the pieces coming together as some financial clouds were lifting and the desire to accommodate the whole world's best women golfers was stronger than ever.

Last week, when the LPGA's 2013 schedule was announced, Whan hinted that another shoe -- a good one -- would soon drop. Thursday, the International Crown was unveiled.

The format has some kinship to the Solheim Cup, but they are still quite different. At the International Crown, there will be no captain or coach making choices about pairings, or anything else. The four players on each team will do all of that, reminding you a bit of what it takes to have successful alliances on "Survivor."

Golf also will be an Olympic sport starting in 2016, so some may think the sport's calendar is going to get over-clogged with "big" events. But the Olympic format will be like a standard tournament: a 72-hole stroke play individual competition for men and women.

It's the team bonding and national representation that ultimately make the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup so compelling. Golfers -- typically more lone wolves in an individual sport -- show aspects of their personalities in team play that sometimes never come out in a regular tournament.

The pressure of playing for more than just your own bank account is different, and that, at times, has been remarkably revealing about some of golf's greatest.

The International Crown will extend that to the best women all over the world. Yes, there still may be some top players who could be left out because their countries don't have enough top performers. Norway's Suzann Pettersen is one. But for the most part, it's going to cover just about everybody and bring in a viewing audience of the participating countries.

The first two stagings of the International Crown will take place in the United States -- at Caves Valley Golf Club in suburban Baltimore in 2014 and Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago in 2016 -- and both will be in July. At some point, perhaps, it may move outside the United States, where it could be even more popular.

It was definitely time for this. Come 2014, we hope to see an event that will prove to be worth the wait.