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American renaissance for LPGA

07/06/2014, 12:00am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
American renaissance for LPGA

A couple days after Michelle Wie won the U.S. Women’s Open she made the network rounds in New York City, and then rode to the top of the Empire State Building to do local media interviews.

It is hard not to sense some significance in that.

The LPGA Tour is experiencing an American renaissance, Wie is a big part of it, and the sky, or at least the 103 stories of NYC’s iconic structure that stretches into the sky, might be the limit.

The ladies are embarking on a busy, travel-heavy two weeks, playing in the Women’s British Open later this week and coming to the Toledo area for the Marathon Classic the next.

If nothing changes between now and then, seven of the top 15 players in the Rolex women’s world rankings will be Americans, including No. 1 Stacy Lewis, a Toledo native.

Adding to interest in the tour is New Zealand-born Lydia Ko, now 17, who played in the Marathon Classic at Highland Meadows as an amateur a year ago, turned professional in October, already has a win, and six other top-10 finishes in 2014, and has risen to No. 2 in the world.

Another of the young guns, Lexi Thompson of the U.S., edged Wie in this year’s first major championship, the Kraft-Nabisco. Both are in the top 10, along with Lewis and veteran Cristie Kerr. Americans Paula Creamer, Lizette Salas, and Angela Stanford, own three of the next five slots.

This is a stark departure from a few years back when foreigners, primarily South Koreans, dominated the tour. Currently, only Inbee Park, a former world No. 1, and 2012 Jamie Farr Classic champion So Yeon Ryu represent that country among the top 15 in the rankings.

That’s another story for another day.

This story is about the American comeback and what it might mean to the LPGA.

The final-round duel between Thompson and Wie in the Kraft-Nabisco led to record ratings on the Golf Channel for the final round. Wie’s win in the Open led to TV ratings that were up 90 percent on Sunday from the previous year.

What it may translate to in long-term TV results and sponsorship dollars for the tour, or for endorsement opportunities for players, many of them woefully underappreciated in that regard, remains to be seen.

Wie may have a lot to do with how it plays out.

She has been around seemingly forever, a child prodigy who was playing against PGA Tour players at age 14 and trying to qualify for the men’s U.S. Open at 16. Tall, striking, and with a perfect, sweet swing — some compare it to Ernie Els, known as the Big Easy, and refer to her as the Big Weisy — she got a rich Nike contract early on, a little attitude, a lot of bad advice, and seemed intent on being anything but your run-of-the-mill LPGA player.

She didn’t exactly crash and burn, but after turning pro days before her 16th birthday in 2005 and after joining the LPGA in ’09, there were far more lows than highs. Two wins and about $3 million in earnings entering 2014 weren’t necessarily to sniff at, but considering the high expectations from the start it wasn’t hard to view her as an underachiever.

The women’s version of Tiger she was not.

Until this year, as Wie finally emerged as a world-class player with two wins and a total of 10 top-10 finishes entering the Women’s British. She seems happy, at last; more genuine than difficult, and more popular than ever.

In a season when an injured Tiger Woods has been mostly absent from the PGA Tour and during which the people’s choice, Phil Mickelson, has struggled with consistency, Wie and other American women, plus Ko, have encouraged golf fans to take either another or a first look at the LPGA.

It has been a perfect script for the ladies’ tour.

A week from now, the show comes to Highland Meadows and local fans can explore the new-look LPGA and its new-look, top-level talent up close and personal.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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