At No. 1, Cristie Kerr is good for LPGA Tour

Cristie KerrCristie  Kerr is No. 1. It’s taken her 13 years on the LPGA Tour, helped along by the premature retirement of greats Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, to reach the pinnacle of her sport, but she’s there now and that’s what matters.

Now the question is: Is it a good thing for the LPGA Tour?

Well, for starters, let’s say that Kerr is deserving of her current stature. She certainly played like the best in the world at the LPGA Championship two weekends ago, destroying the field and winning by a record 12 strokes at 19-under over runner-up Song-Hee Kim to claim her second major title (she also won the 2007 U.S. Open).

In nine starts on Tour this season the 32-year-old Florida native has won twice, had five top-10s (all top-5 finishes actually) and is second on the money list behind Ai Miyazato at $904, 970. She’s also first in scoring average (69.40), one of only three players (Kim and Suzann Pettersen are the others) on Tour averaging less than 70 strokes per round.

As most golf fans know this isn’t anything new for Kerr, who hasn’t finished lower than 10th on the money list since 2003 (she was second last year), and who now owns 14 LPGA titles. But it is fair to say she’s playing the best golf of her career.

And, she is American, something the LPGA Tour secretly must relish. Sure, former LPGA star Jan Stephenson’s infamous remarks several years ago about foreigners ruining the Tour were a bit over the top, but there are 127 international players with some sort of playing privileges on Tour this year. That international contingent isn’t just playing either, they’re winning, led, of course, by Miyazato, a 25-year-old from Japan, who has already won four times this season.

Of the 13 official Tour events, 11 have been won by internationals. Kerr is the only American to win this year. Of the 28 events last year, only five were won by an American.

The LPGA has done a good job of marketing overseas to take advantage of this changing of the guard, but has had a hard time of doing the same here in North America. In part, it may be a case of not having a superstar American or two to market. So, to have an American be No. 1 (for the first time since 2006, by the way) has to help the Tour with its search for domestic corporate partners. It’s an issue Kerr addressed after her LPGA Championship win.

“It’s huge,” she said of having an American as No. 1. “Even though we’re a global tour, we’re still American-based. Our headquarters are in Florida and Daytona Beach, and we still have a lot of Europeans living in America, Koreans living in America. It’s still an American-based tour. We need to represent that strength, that part of our tour well.

“It’s hard, because it seems like the numbers of Americans have kind of dwindled. I think there was a stat that in 1990 the number of Americans that played 10 or more events was like 132, and last year it was like 40 or less. So that tells you how much more international our tour’s gotten.”

Outside of Michelle Wie or Paula Creamer, Kerr is probably the best American for the job. No, she doesn’t have Wie’s awe-inspiring power and marketing cache and she doesn’t have Creamer’s girlish appeal and fashion style, but she is intelligent, articulate, facially appealing (yes, let’s not be naïve, when it comes to marketing the LPGA Tour that is important, whether the marketing is geared toward men or women) and she has the game to stay on top.

In addition, Kerr brings an intense passion for the game, which is etched on her face with almost every swing. It’s a passion that’s gotten the best of her at times – see last year’s U.S. Open when she simmered with anger at some poor shots in the final round, relinquishing her cool and the lead.

However, it also translates into her desire to grow the sport in the United States, be a role model for young girls interested in the game and an inspiration for girls to pick up a golf club for the first time.

“We need to really build LPGA girls golf programs in America, because we need more girls in America playing and getting out there to Q-schools and getting on Tour,” Kerr said. “We need to look out for the health of American golf going forward.”

So, to answer the question is Cristie Kerr being No. 1 in the world good for the LPGA Tour? Absolutely. Can she stay on top? Well, that’s a question that can’t be answered just yet.

Her lead is a slight one in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, a complicated point-based system that tracks the last two years of each player’s performance every week. Kerr’s 10.55-point average is only marginally better than Miyazato’s 10.39. Not far off the pace as well are former No. 1 Jiyai Shin (9.63), Suzann Pettersen (8.98) and Yani Tseng (8.35).

The upshot is Kerr will have to continue to perform to stay on top. But at least for two weeks – we’ll see how things shake out after this week’s U.S. Open – in the world of women’s golf an American reigns supreme.

“It’s very exciting,” Morgan Pressel, a 22-year-old American and two-time LPGA winner, told the Detroit News after the LPGA Championship. “It’s great for American golf. It’s been awhile since we had a single American as a figurehead. You see Nancy Lopez made such an impact in the world of women’s golf, and Juli Inkster, players like that. There’s been a lot of talk on the Tour about the international influence, and to have somebody from the United States have such a dominating performance, I hope it inspires girls to come out. It could inspire a new wave of American golf.”

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