Deep, Diverse Field Reflects Game’s Global Growth May 27, 2019 | CHARLESTON, S.C. By Ron Sirak

Inbee Park is the only player since 2001 to win more than one U.S. Women's Open, reflecting the depth of talent in the women's game. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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When Laura Davies won the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open last year it was a fitting milestone in women’s golf, since her victory in the 1987 U.S. Women’s Open signaled a seismic shift in the global growth of the game. And this week’s 74th U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston will showcase exactly how dramatic that change has been. The best players in the world now come from all over the world.

What started in 1946 as a national championship has evolved into an international championship, especially since Davies of England won in 1987.

This year’s field of 156 has players from 27 nations, with 54 from the United States and 23 from the Republic of Korea. But that expansion hasn’t just been geographic; the talent pool in women’s golf has not only broadened, but also deepened, fostering a robust parity in the game.

In the 17 championships since 2001, when Karrie Webb of Australia became the most recent of seven players to win the U.S. Women’s Open in consecutive years, 16 players have taken home the title. The last 10 champions are 10 different players, with Inbee Park in 2008 and 2013 the only player since Webb with multiple titles.

Looking back on it now, that 1987 U.S. Women’s Open at Plainfield Country Club in New Jersey was a quiet whisper of what was to come. Davies won an 18-hole playoff over Ayako Okamoto of Japan, one of only a handful of fellow international players in the field, and JoAnne Carner, an eight-time USGA champion who was the face of American dominance.

But it’s unlikely anyone anticipated the massive change to come. Beginning with Patty Berg’s victory in the inaugural U.S. Women’s Open, only three of the first 41 titles were won by players born outside the United States – Fay Crocker of Uruguay in 1955; Catherine Lacoste of France in 1967, the only amateur to win; and Jan Stephenson of Australia in 1983.

But in the last 32 championships starting with Davies, who was followed the next year by Liselotte Neumann of Sweden, 18 winners have been international players, including seven of the last 10. The U.S. Women’s Open is a roadmap detailing an international highway of not just players, but great players.

Among the last 10 winners are four who reached No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings – Ariya Jutanugarn, Sung Hyun Park, Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu. And those 10 have also proven to be enduring stars. Jutanugarn, the defending champion, is No 4 in the Rolex Rankings while 2017 winner Sung Hyun Park is No. 3 with Inbee Park at No. 6. Ryu, the 2011 champion, is No. 12 and the woman who was first in this run of 10 in 2009, Eun-Hee Ji, is No. 16.

To encourage this growth, the USGA has widened the pipeline for talent. In 2014, the USGA introduced international qualifying in the People’s Republic of China, England, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

That was also the year the USGA cast a bright spotlight on the U.S. Women’s Open by staging it in consecutive weeks with the U.S. Open on the same venue – Pinehurst No. 2. That bold experiment was an unqualified success that garnered record-setting TV ratings as Michelle Wie won her first major and second USGA championship.

The addition of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open was another boost for the women’s game and the first two champions – Davies, and Helen Alfredsson of Sweden – are another indication of how the women’s game has changed over the last three decades. 

And more change is coming. Beginning with the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston, money-list exemptions for the LPGA Tour, Ladies European Tour and the LPGA tours of Korea, Japan and China will be eliminated. Instead, the top 75 in the Rolex Rankings will be exempt. This year, the top 50 qualified.

Also, the top 30 from the final CME Globe points list for the previous year’s CME Tour Championship will be exempt, a move that acknowledges the LPGA as the strongest and, with 33 nations among its membership, most diverse women’s tour.

“With the global nature of the women’s professional game, we believe an expanded use of the Rolex Rankings offers a more objective approach in establishing exemption criteria for the U.S. Women’s Open Championship,” said Shannon Rouillard, senior director of the championship.

England's Hayley Davis earned a spot in the U.S. Women's Open by playing in sectional qualifying in her home country. (USGA/Chris Keane)

The impact of the U.S. Women’s Open on the global game cannot be overstated. When asked what it means to win a USGA event, player after player said their first memory of golf was watching the championship on television or attending in person.

After Jutanugarn prevailed over Hyo-Joo Kim in a four-hole playoff last year, Jutanugarn was asked what it would mean if she vaulted to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings. “Right now, I'm not even [thinking about it],” she said. “I want to inspire all the kids in Thailand.”

Inspire young people is what Se Ri Pak’s victory in the 1998 Women’s Open did. Among the 10-year-old girls watching on TV in Korea as Pak defeated another 20-year-old – Jenny Chuasiriporn, whose parents are from Thailand – in a 20-hole playoff was Inbee Park. She’s gone on to win three USGA championships – the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior as well as two U.S. Women’s Opens – and was twice runner-up in the Junior.

At the USGA Annual Meeting this year, CEO Mike Davis explained the role of the governing body in nurturing the game. “The USGA mission statement urges us to promote and conserve the true spirit of the game of golf,” Davis said. “Simply put, it’s about doing the right thing for the game, the betterment of the game."

The changes made to broaden the U.S. Women’s Open are quite simply steps to do the right thing for the game, as is the fact that in 1987, Davies took home $55,000 from a purse of $325,000 while last year, Jutanugarn got $900,000 from a purse of $5 million.

The growth of the U.S. Women’s Open has not only reflected the global growth of women’s golf – it has helped fuel it. The next log on the fire comes this week at the Country Club of Charleston.

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

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