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Title IX’s unanticipated side effect is the growth of international golf competition

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Since 1994, the year foreign athletes began dominating the LPGA, only one American — Stacy Lewis in 2014 — has topped the money list.

Title IX has been both a blessing and a curse for professional golf among American women. While the game has become the sixth most-offered college sport for women at the Division I level, the growing opportunities to land scholarships in other sports has created intense competition among talented female athletes.

In many other countries, such as South Korea, girls encounter far fewer athletic opportunities, and gravitate to golf in large numbers. Many of those international players end up at American universities, eventually making their way to the LPGA. The result is a tour that has become increasingly international, both in terms of membership and event location.

Twenty years ago there were no Koreans on the LPGA, and 133 of the 182 players on the tour’s final money list were Americans, totalling nearly 75 percent. That all changed when Se Ri Pak burst on the scene in 1998, triggering the phenomenal growth of women’s golf in South Korea. This year, only 64 of the 164 players on the LPGA are Americans — fewer that 40 percent — while 24 were from South Korea. In total, 23 different nations are represented among tour members. In 1997, the LPGA played five of its 38 events outside the United States. This year, 17 of the 34 tournaments will be played in 14 different countries.

From the LPGA’s founding in 1950 until 1994, the only non-American to lead the tour’s money list was Ayako Okamoto of Japan in 1987. Since 1994, only one American — Stacy Lewis in 2014 — has topped the money list. And those other money leaders have come from eight different countries: England, Sweden, Australia, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand and Thailand.

What has changed? Certainly, golf has grown globally, but the LPGA’s evolving landscape can be traced back to the success of Title IX. Put simply, American girls and young women have a wider range of sports to choose from than female athletes from any other country. And that process is only accelerating.

While 263 Division I schools have women’s golf programs, golf is the sixth most-offered sport for female athletes, trailing basketball, volleyball, soccer, track and field and softball, according to scholarshipstats.com. And among the sports that offer athletic scholarships to women, golf gives out the fewest per team: six. Clearly, there are easier ways to earn an athletic scholarship than by taking up golf.

The year that foreign athletes began to dominate the LPGA — 1994 — was also the year that the NCAA created its Gender Equality Task Force, which is tasked with identifying emerging sports for women. Equestrian, rugby and triathlon are currently on the list. Nine sports made the initial list of up-and-coming female sports in 1994, some of which have been officially introduced by the NCAA. These include beach volleyball, rowing, ice hockey, water polo and bowling.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, lacrosse is currently the fastest-growing sport for women, with nearly 40 percent of colleges now fielding a team. Soccer, rowing and cross country are also identified as being increasingly popular among women by the publication.

Leaders in golf are supporting the overall aims of Title IX, recognizing that the competition among players has changed and adapted..

« Title IX has certainly created more opportunities for women to play golf at the collegiate level, » says Mary Lou Mulflur, head coach of the 2016 NCAA champion University of Washington women’s golf team. « There are so many more girls playing sports of all kinds because of Title IX. I don’t view it as a battlefield as much as I do an opportunity to expand the number of girls playing sports of any kind. It’s amazing what people will do when given the opportunity. »

One of the ways coaches have adapted to the changing game is to cast a wider net when recruiting, which has resulted in greater competition at the highest level of women’s college golf.

« Coaches recruit all over the globe now, » says Mulflur. « There are so many great players outside the U.S., and it has created more parity in our sport. A program like ours is not going to attract the best players from Southern California for instance; but we can and do attract high-level players from other parts of the world. The quality of women’s collegiate golf has grown exponentially creating better, more competitive NCAA championships. »

Mulflur had two players from New Zealand and two athletes from Japan and China, respectively, on her seven-player roster this year. She estimates that 30 to 40 foreign-born players were at the women’s NCAA finals this year.

The change in the athletic landscape produced by Title IX has prompted leading golf organizations to become more active in grow-the-game programs. The LPGA and the U.S. Golf Association have joined forces to support Girls Golf, a program created in Phoenix,1989 by Sandy LaBauve that now has 380 sites and impacts 50,000 girls ages 6 to 17 each year. In 2013, the USGA, PGA of America and the Masters Tournament teamed up to create the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship for boys and girls ages 7 to 15. The event concludes with four junior age group finals at Augusta National Golf Club.

Forty-five years after Title IX, the LPGA is a very different organization, and so is women’s college golf. In 1972, the LPGA was virtually an all-American tour, and golf pretty much didn’t exist for women at the college level. The unanticipated side effect of Title IX has been to internationalize women’s golf and, in that way, vastly upgrade the quality of the game.

The LPGA has changed, no question about it. But while it is less American, it is also better. Title IX has truly been a case of a rising tide lifting all boats. It’s just that the boats now fly the flags of many different nations.