Women's golf on the upswing

Solheim Cup puts spotlight on advances in sport

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Many of the elite players from the Ladies Professional Golf Association and Ladies European Tour will be heading to Parker for the Solheim Cup later this month. The biennial, prestigious match-play tournament pits 12 U.S.-born professionals against 12 European counterparts.

Colorado golf fans will see accurate drives, pinpoint approach shots and clutch putts during the event, which will be held Aug. 13-18 at the Colorado Golf Club. The statistics show these players are hitting longer and scoring lower than ever before. But are the elite women of today really more skilled that the top players of yesteryear?

That's a debatable topic, because golf balls and equipment keep improving and make it easier for those golfers who have correct swing techniques to flirt with or better par.

“Overall, more women are playing the game globally,” said 59-year-old Denver resident Hollis Stacy, who won 18 LPGA tournaments and collected four victories in majors during her 26-year career. “The same scores are winning on the LPGA and European tours. Golf is more competitive. There are more people shooting those low scores and winning.

“What happened in the game is the equipment is much better. The skill levels have remained the same. We had women on the tour drive the ball 270 yards. If we had the same equipment and balls the players have now, the drives would be in the 300s.”

Donna H. White, an LPGA teaching professional who played 15 seasons on the tour and won three events before retiring in 1992, claims today's players are taking advantage of opportunities.

“I am quite confident given the ball of today and agronomic grooming of fairways and greens that Mickey Wright's scoring average would be 67 or better,” said White. “I don't think players today are any more skilled. I believe they have been exposed to greater opportunities than mine or previous generations.”

Wright won 82 tournaments in 14 years on the LPGA Tour, including four U.S. Women's Opens and three LPGA Championships. She retired from the tour in 1969 and won four consecutive Vare Trophies, the award that goes to the player with the lowest scoring average.

The lowest scoring average for Wright was 72.46 in 1960. For the past 16 seasons, the LPGA's Vare winner has had an average of 70.21 or lower. In fact, no winner has had an average higher than 71 since 1977.

White credits better competitive exposure, technology and fitness for the improved statistics for current professionals.

“My era was the first to benefit from Title IX,” explained White. “Beth Daniel, Nancy Lopez and myself were able to attend college and gain invaluable competitive experience prior to joining the tour. Today kids can play in a tournament starting at age 4 every weekend. Tour players before me had to join the tour to compete. I couldn't play soccer or baseball in my era. Today girls can play any sport they want. The skills and competitive maturity transfers nicely to golf.

“The ball is the most influential technology advancement. Also video analysis. Health and fitness was always important to me. I ran and trained but few of my fellow tour players would join me. Then in the early-mid '80s , the health boom happened and we had fitness vans on tour weekly.”

Mike Scanlan, LPGA Director of Media Communications, didn't have the chance to watch some of the LPGA's former standouts.

“Whether or not players on the LPGA today are better than those in past generations is a subjective question,” he said. “I think the depth of the LPGA is certainly greater than it's ever been thanks in large part to the growth of the game globally. Scoring averages are between one and two strokes better than they were in 1980, but advancements in technology must factor into that debate. Whether you look at 1950, 1980 or today, the best players in the world are playing on the LPGA.”

Janet Moore, a five-time Colorado stroke play champion who spends part of the year in Illinois as Wheaton College's women's golf coach, has watched women's golf and the skills of players grow in the state.

“I've seen golf in Colorado grow over the years and I've seen the caliber of play improve greatly,” said Moore. “It seems like the juniors are getting younger and younger and better and better. That's very exciting.

“I started playing when I was 10. I played because my family played. From what I've seen, the game has grown and the interest has grown for young girls. The caliber of play has improved. Just in the high school ranks now you need three or four good players to do well. It has changed quite a bit. I played on my boys high school team. They didn't have a girls team. I went to Wheat Ridge High School and they let me play on the boys team.”

Colorado Women's Golf Association Executive Director Robin Jervey noted enhanced play in Colorado tournaments.

“We run 10 state championships, and looking at who plays in the championship flights of those events, the handicaps of the elite players have been going down,” said Jervey. “And there is more depth.”

Globalization of the LPGA tour, better equipment and the tour's attempt to promote physically attractive players has made women's golf more appealing, and events like the Solheim Cup may spark a desire for more women to start playing.

“I know when the Women's Open came to Cherry Hills in 2005, they had record crowds,” said Jervey. “It only had to help interest in the women's game because it got people excited to see people of that skill level right in their own backyard. Both the CGA and CWGA have been offering discounts to our members to purchase tickets to the Solheim Cup.

“People going to the Solheim Cup get to participate in something that probably won't come to Colorado again. The Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup move around quite a bit. With it going overseas and back every two years, there's a slim chance it would wind up in Colorado again, or if it does, it will be a long time from now. People should take advantage of this opportunity.”

Moore agrees.

“I would think having a prestigious event like the Solheim Cup in Colorado would certainly make a positive impact on the golfing community in general,” she said. “I think it would spur interest.”

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