Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are Americans Underachieving on the LPGA Tour?

I have just returned home after spending nine days in Kohler, Wisconsin. I will elaborate on that in a future post. Congratulations goes out to Na Yeon Choi for her remarkable performance in winning the 2012 United States Open.

It seems that whenever the subject of the LPGA comes up, the conversation always drifts to the fact that the American players are being dominated on their own tour by the Asian players. Is this actually a fact, or is this just a lot of talk by the casual American fan who wants to turn on their television set and see three hours of Natalie Gulbis and Paula Creamer?

Let us look at some key statistics:

No American has won a Major Championship since Stacy Lewis won the Kraft Nabisco Championship last year. The six winners since then have come from the following countries:

South Korea (3) -  So Yeon Ryu, Sun Young Yoo, Na Yeon Choi
Taiwan (2) -  Yani Tseng (2)
China (1) -  Shanshan Feng
Score: Asia 6, U.S.A. 0

You say that is too small a period of time? Let us look at the major championships since the beginning of the 2010 season.

Taiwan (4) -  Yani Tseng (4)
South Korea (3) - So Yeon Ryu, Sun Young Yoo, Na Yeon Choi
U.S.A. (3) - Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Stacy Lewis
China (1) -  Shanshan Feng
Score: Asia 8, U.S.A. 3

That doesn't look much better for the Americans, winning only 27.2 %.

Is this just a fluke? Are the Americans doing better if we count all the tournaments, and not just the majors?  Let us find out. Here are the 2012 results:

U.S.A. (5) -  Jessica Korda, Angela Stanford, Stacy Lewis (2), Brittany Lang
Taiwan (3) - Yani Tseng (3)
Japan (2) - Ai Miyazato (2)
South Korea (2) - Sun Young Yoo, Na Yeon Choi
China (1) -  Shanshan Feng
Spain (1) - Azahara Munoz
Score: Asia 8, U.S.A. 5, Europe 1

You say that is much better? I say not that much. Where it is true that the U.S.A. has more victories than any single country, winning just five of fourteen tournaments is nothing to brag about. That is a 35.7 % victory rate.

Still not convinced?  You say this is too small a period to make any definite conclusions? Let us go back to the beginning of 2010 for this also.

South Korea (14) - Hee Kyung Seo, Se Ri Pak, Sun Young Yoo (2), Na Yeon Choi (4), Jiyai Shin (2), Jimin Kang, So Yeon Ryu, Hee Young Park, I.K. Kim                        
Taiwan (13) - Yani Tseng (13)
U.S.A. (13) - Cristie Kerr (2), Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis (3), Lincicome (2), Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, Angela Stanford, Brittany Lang
Japan (9) - Ai Miyazato (8), Momoko Ueda
Australia (3) - Karrie Webb (2), Katherine Hull
Sweden (2) - Maria Hjorth (2)
Spain (2) - Beatriz Recari, Azahara Munoz
Norway (2) - Suzann Pettersen (2)
China (1) -  Shanshan Feng
Germany (1) -  Sandra Gal
Scotland (1) - Catriona Matthew.
Score: Asia 37, U.S.A. 13,  Europe 8, Australia (3)

The picture is not getting any brighter here for the Americans, winning a dismal 21.3 percent of the time.

Not that I think you need any more convincing at this point, but I will now point out the following from this week's Rolex Rankings:

American Players in the top 100 = 16
South Korean Players in the top 100 = 34
Japanese Players ranked in the top 100 = 20

Here are some opinions on why the Asians are playing better than the Americans:

Course owner Herbert Kohler Jr., essentially called out the American women, saying their lack of success is because of their work ethic. "These Asians have done so well because they know the meaning of work," Kohler told the Associated Press. "They work and they work. And that is starting to have an impact on the Americans. The Americans have now seen what the Asians can do, and they are starting to work harder."

It has become quite obvious that the Asian players, namely the Koreans, have gained the reputation of being the first to the range and the last to leave. " Maybe I should spend a week with one of them and kind of figure out what they do," said American Brittany Lincicome on Sunday. "Obviously they practice unbelievably hard. They're not fishing on their weeks off like I am."

South Korea's last 10 major titles have been won by 10 different players. Same with the U.S.A.: the last 10 American major champions have all been different players.

The Koreans have certainly had the edge of late, but with such talented young players as Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer, Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie, and a number of others, the tide could turn quickly. But until that happens, they will have to keep answering the question of why they have been underachieving.

Other Tidbits:
Paula Creamer's 7th-place finish this week moves her up to #7 on the all time money list. She passes Meg Mallon.

Titleholders Update: 
Sandra Gal, Giulia Sergas, and Ilhee Lee are the latest to qualify.

Rolex Rankings Movers of the week:
Na Yeon Choi moves from #5 to #2. Amy Yang moves from #13 to #7, despite never having won a single LPGA tournament. Sandra Gal moves from #39 to #29.

Hard to believe fact of the week:
Ai Miyazato's major championship winless streak has now reached 30. She has certainly replaced Paula Creamer, whose victory at Oakmont was in her 25th major, as the best player in the world without a major victory.


Mike said...

But here's another way of looking at the figures, Tony:

Of this year's winners, only 3 have more than a single victory -- Tseng, Miyazato, and Lewis -- and none of them have a major this year. And the USA has 4 different winners this year; South Korea has only 2, and no one else more than one. So the Americans look pretty good there.

And since 2010, both South Korea and the USA have 9 players with wins. Each has 3 multiple winners, accounting for 8 and 7 wins respectively. Tseng with 13 and Miyazato with 8 clearly stand out from the pack, but that doesn't say anything about depth from their countries.

Actually, I don't think it's the work ethic that separates the South Koreans. The difference is their grounding in fundamentals. I know about this firsthand.

A few years ago I took of a couple of years of Tae Kwon Do from Tiger Kim, a three-time Korean national champion. Several of the instructors were golfers -- one played the then-Nationwide Tour. The most striking thing to me was how classes were structured. The running joke was that, once you got a black belt, you finally knew enough for Master Kim to teach you how to do it right.

He always started classes with everyone -- from the newest white belt to the most advanced black belt -- working together on the same fundamentals. Everybody did the exact same exercises together. And in a 50-minute class, we would spend anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes doing those same fundamental exercises. And while he never pestered us to workout a lot away from class, he insisted on full effort during class.

Master Kim is regarded as one of the best TKD teachers around -- even by masters in other martial arts -- because of his dedication to teaching fundamentals.

That's where the Asian players -- and the South Koreans in particular -- have a leg up on the US players. They have simple swings that rarely break. But when you look at how individuals have performed, as I did earlier in this comment, I'm not so sure they have as big an advantage as it may first appear.

And as I said, Tseng and Miyazato are exceptions. After all, Annika's success didn't mean that Sweden as a whole was better at golf than the US, did it?

The Constructivist said...

I think Mike makes many good points and would like to add another angle to the discussion, namely the idea of career arcs and momentum swings. The period we're focusing on is when Ya Ni Tseng and Ai Miyazato have been head and shoulders better than anyone else in the world, but where Ji-Yai Shin, Na Yeon Choi, and a host of young Koreans have been playing really well in bursts, too. Meanwhile, Cristie Kerr has gone from playing well and not winning in 2011 to just not playing that well over 72 holes in 2012, Paula Creamer's putter has deserted her, Stacy Lewis has stepped up, but inconsistently, Michelle Wie has slumped, and everyone else from the U.S. who's won has been pretty inconsistent.

So there have been larger numbers of young Asian golfers playing well enough to win, and while the best Americans have been struggling, a greater percentage of wins than usual have been headed Asia's way. Maybe it's more of a random swing than underachieving on the part of Americans.

Think about it: when have Americans dominated the LPGA? In the Ochoa Era? The Sorenstam Era? We have to go back to the '80s for real American domination. So what is a normal situation these days on the LPGA? What constitutes "average achievement" or "overachievement"? Should we go historical, and compare recent winning percentages to long-term ones? From which period? Or should we look at the percentages of each nationality across fields over a portion of time and expect winning percentages to roughly correlate to that? The basic question is what we establish as the norm?

Given that the LPGA is the closest thing to a global tour in the entire world of professional golf, perhaps the tour doesn't belong to anyone anymore? Except Annika, then Lorena, then Ya Ni.....

The Constructivist said...

Looking over my earlier post today on career wins and winnings across LPGA "generations"--

--I'm noticing that Americans have often been outdistanced by Asian or European golfers (Cristie Kerr is the only American atop her generation in winnings; none lead in wins). But the big case for Asian domination comes in the Tseng Dynasty generation. Only Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lang, and Kristy McPherson are in the top 20 among the rookie classes of 2006-2008 (add Meaghan Francella, Katie Futcher, and Jane Park if you go to the top 26), and of them, only Morgan is in the top 5 in winnings and wins. Things seem to even out a bit in the next generation, with Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie pulling their weight, Vicky Hurst on the rise, and a host of young Americans poised to move up the ranks. Now it may turn out that not many of them actually do, in which case it's up to those 3 to rack up wins and winnings.

Basically, it comes down to each country or region having 0-4 standard-bearers in each LPGA generation, when it comes to excellence over time. Then it just depends on how the best Americans do against the field relative to the best Asians, Europeans, etc.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things that I think get missed when talking about the American women:

1 - Tournament money on the LPGA Tour is relatively small compared to what the men are playing for week in and week out. That's just economics - the men are the draw.

2 - Not only is the purse money smaller, the endorsement dollars just aren't as free flowing as they for the top men.

Personal opinion, companies that overpaid for the likes of Michelle Wie, whose performance has lagged way behind her ability, could be a bit skittish when it comes to putting money into the women who are coming up through the ranks. Only young players like Lexi Thompson, who hit the ground running and put up good results are going to get good sponsorship dollars.

What the shorter money does to most American women, in my opinion, is to force many highly talented women to take time away from working on their games in order to make a living in other areas. Some do modelling - some do personal appearances at corporate outings or charity events, etc etc etc. These things take the American talent away from the same kind of focus the Asian women have without the distraction of chasing dollars to make a living.

Playing in the US, away from most of the corporate distractions has to be an advantage for the Asian women. If most of these tournaments were held in Korea, that advantage would switch.

So yes, I believe the American women are being outworked by the Asian players - but it is not a matter of laziness. (I have to admit that it is occassionally difficult to remember these things when following some of the LPGA stars on Twitter and seeing so many Tweets talking about getting nails done or going to parties, etc instead of working on their games)

Most of us, I would guess, think that if these talented American women would bear down and get the most out of their talent, the dollars would follow - and that might be true, but a lot of these women are struggling to scratch out a living and are forced to trade practice time for outing dollars, while the Asian players come here pretty well funded and are able to buckle down on their games.

It's just not as simple as it might appear. These are not "lazy" women.

Ray said...

For some reason I doubt Americans were winning at a big clip when Annika Karie and Lorena were dominating the tour. It's actually 5-2 in tournament wins this year for the Americans over the Koreans. It's not as bad as you think and there is no reason to get your panties in a bunch.

The Constructivist said...

I still believe a lot of this is random. We've already had 2 huge playoffs that Americans won (Korda, Lang), each of which could easily have been won by one of the several Korean golfers in them.

Another factor is that European and Australian golfers haven't been following in the footsteps of Annika, Laura, and Karrie all that effectively. Carin Koch decided to play in Europe full-time, while Rachel Hetherington retired. Sophie Gustafson and Maria Hjorth are really good, but pretty inconsistent, and haven't been playing all that well in 2012. Guilia Sergas is the best European in the rookie classes of 2000-2002, but she's only in 12th in winnings and has no LPGA wins. Yes, there's Suzann Pettersen in the 2003-2005 classes, but Katherine Hull, Lindsey Wright, and Karine Icher are nowhere near her level. The closest the Euros and Aussies come to a top-26 player in the classes of 2006-2008 is Amy Yang, who lived in Australia for a while! Oh yeah, I forgot that Sandra Gal is #19 in winnings and has 1 win. We may be seeing a Lorena bump from the Class of 2010 and up, with Spanish and Spanish-speaking golfers showing a lot of potential, but so far only Azahara Munoz has begun to realize it (although watch out for Carlota Ciganda once she gets full statuson the LPGA!). The fact is, Asian golfers have been outplaying Euro and Aussie golfers by far in the last decade.

I wonder how big this effect is? Could it be that American winning percentages have basically held steady since the '90s, while European/Australian rates have gone up sharply in the 1990s and 1st half of the 2000s, then declined even more sharply ever since?

The Constructivist said...

Forgot Anna Nordqvist ('09er), who hasn't won since her rookie season, but is playing very solid golf over the course of her career thus far.

Tony Jesselli (Tonyj5) said...

Read an interesting post on one of the other boards. It implied that Asians live to work, while Americans work to live. Interesting theory, what do yoy think?

The Constructivist said...

Inbee Park is making the other dual LPGA-JLPGA members look lazy, playing in the Stanley Ladies this week!

Sure, Sakura Yokomine and Yukari Baba are doing the same thing, flying straight from Wisconsin to Shizuoka to go from the U.S. Women's Open to the Stanley Ladies, but you'd think Inbee would take some time off, wouldn't you?

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