The Game's Global Pioneers are Making Their Presence Felt July 13, 2018 | WHEATON, ILL. By Ron Sirak

Liselotte Neumann of Sweden, the 1988 U.S. Women's Open champion, helped expand the game around the world. (USGA/John Gress)

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The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open has served a fascinating array of functions this week at Chicago Golf Club. First and foremost, it is a breakthrough event, a national championship in which female golfers age 50 and over can play. But it has also been a celebration of the women’s game and those who helped grow it around the world. All you need to do is look at the leader board midway through the competition to see where the game has been, and just as importantly, where it is going.

Among the top 10 after 36 holes are Trish Johnson and Laura Davies of England; Liselotte Neumann of Sweden, Yuko Saito of Japan and Alicia Dibos of Peru. In the case of Davies and Neumann, they were among the pioneers who shepherded the globalization of the game. Appropriately, they are in contention to win the very first U.S. Senior Women’s Open, as it was the global growth they helped trigger that contributed to the creation of this championship.

From its inception in 1946 through 1986, only three players born outside the United States won the U.S. Women’s Open: Fay Crocker of Uruguay in 1955; amateur Catherine Lacoste from France in 1967 and Australian Jan Stephenson in 1983. But the back-to-back wins by Davies in 1987 and Neumann the next year began knocking down the borders around golf, adding Asia as well as Europe to the mix when Se Ri Pak of the Republic of Korea won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998.

“I think when players in Europe and Asia saw us win back-to-back it made them realize it isn’t just an American sport. When we had success, it inspired them to take up the game and try to win over here,” Davies said, expressing a sentiment with which Neumann readily agreed. “Look at Trish Johnson,” Davies added. “She was also part of growing the game overseas.”

Laura Davies of England won the 1987 U.S. Women's Open, and is one of the biggest draws this week at Chicago Golf Club. (USGA/John Gress)

There is no way to overstate the impact on the growth of golf of those victories by Davies and Neumann in the late 1980s and the one by Pak a decade later. Beginning with Davies, 18 of the last 32 winners of the U.S. Women’s Open have come from five foreign countries: England, Sweden, Korea, Australia and last month at Shoal Creek – Thailand, with Ariya Jutanugarn capturing the trophy.

Adding to the international flavor of the 1987 Women’s Open was the fact that Davies won in an 18-hole playoff that involved Ayako Okamoto of Japan and, in a direct hook to one of the storylines this week at Chicago Golf Club, the third person in the playoff was JoAnne Carner, who made headlines when she shot her age – 79 – in the first round of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

When Neumann won at Baltimore Country Club in 1988, it was the first time non-Americans won the U.S. Women’s Open in consecutive years. Truly, the women’s game has not been the same since. The talent pool has not only deepened but has also broadened. Players are literally coming from all corners of the world now, and the sport’s return to the Olympics in 2016 is a potent symbol of these trailblazers’ impact.

The U.S. Senior Women’s Open is another building block in that process, piling progress upon the stable foundation built by many of those in the field of 120 here this week. Remember, it was the creation of the U.S. Senior Open in 1980 that provided a major boost to the men’s PGA Tour Champions, which started out as the Senior Tour. That the same phenomena could happen in the women’s game is not out of the realm of possibility by a long shot.

And if that comes to be, history will look back on the wins by Davies and Neumann and the creation of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open as key moments in yet another growth spurt in the game of golf.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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