Robinson: LPGA meets its Waterloo

Peter Robinson writes about why it is so important for Canadian women's golf to have secured a second regular stop on the LPGA Tour, namely the new Manulife Financial Classic in Waterloo, Ont.
Stephanie Sherlock of Barrie, Ont., clears a bunker in the LPGA Championship last Friday at Locust Hill in Pittsford, N.Y. ((Scott Halleran/Getty Images))

The splashy marketing slogan at Tuesday's announcement that an LPGA event will start next year in Waterloo, Ont., said it all: Golf's Global Game.

It's a fair question as to what role, if any, the new tournament can do to help revive this country's role in that global game.

Canadian women once occupied a lofty place among the world's elite — below the Americans and emerging South Koreans yet firmly amongst the likes of English, Swedes et al. But Canada has been left behind since the heady days of the 1990s.

It's telling that the Canadian flag was not among the more than 20 displayed Tuesday on the LPGA banners. Frankly, that many countries are better than Canada right now.

Certainly, there has been some progress in the past two years.

Tournament Tidbits

The Manulife Financial LPGA Classic will be held June 21-24, 2012, in the first of a three-year agreement with a two-year option through 2016.

Canada has never hosted two LPGA events in the same season; the PGA Tour, though, had two Canadian events until the demise of the Air Canada Championship in 2002.

The LPGA is hopeful that the Waterloo event, along with a recently announced tournament in Toledo, Ohio, will be the impetus to grow its schedule to a level enjoyed before the economic downturn in the U.S.

Tournament officials confirmed a certain number of exemptions will be reserved for developing Canadian players.

The LPGA and Sports Properties International plan to meet over how to make the host course at Grey Silo Golf Club more spectator friendly.

— Peter Robinson

Alena Sharp, from nearby Hamilton, Ont., has been on tour for several years and is a respected LPGA member. Sharp and Charlottetown's Lorie Kane, now on the downside of an impressive career, for a few years were the only two Canucks with full status.

Stephanie Sherlock of Barrie, Ont., surprised many by earning her card in her rookie season as a pro and is off to a decent start in her first year on tour. Other women are showing signs of competing against the world's best, but a Canadian has not won on the LPGA in a decade and there are currently none that could be considered among the best in the game right now.

That's a far cry from the 1990s.

Every weekend, it seemed a Canadian was in the hunt, with the likes of Kane, Dawn Coe-Jones, Jennifer Wyatt and Gail Graham all multiple winners on tour. Kane's victory at the 2001 Takefuji Classic remains the last by a Canadian on the best women's circuit in the game. More troubling, it seems, is that Canadians aren't even really part of the conversation any more.

But to the country's great credit and the LPGA's immense appreciation, the CN Canadian Women's Open is probably the most highly regarded non-major on the schedule. LPGA officials and players, including Sherlock, made that point on Tuesday.

"I've seen now that the CN event is the best on the tour in [how it gets] people coming out, for sure," she said.

That regard for the national open within the LPGA was at least partially responsible for Toronto-based Sports Properties International starting the process that led to Tuesday's announcement.

'So many players can win now'

It may be a cynical view, but the country now has two tournaments but not really any realistic hope — aside from, perhaps, Sharp — that a Canadian could seriously challenge to win either one of them.

The reasons are hard to pin down.

The world has definitely gotten better. Korean sensation Se Ri Pak's two-major wins season in 1998 was the magic elixir for the explosion of golf in her native land and across Asia. Back then, many little girls drew inspiration from Pak and are now young women winning around the world.

It could be that Canadian girls look elsewhere — to hockey, obviously — when getting involved in elite sport.

Graham pointed that out Tuesday, while noting that she wasn't concerned because of the cyclical nature of player development — that so many players are now capable of winning tournaments and Canadians get a bit lost in the shuffle.

"So many players can win now," Graham said. "Patty Sheehan told me that when she played, there were six players that could win.

"Now, everyone can."

Natalie Gulbis, one of the game's most recognizable faces, has famously struggled to close the deal, winning just once in a decade on tour. She noted Tuesday that four rounds under par used to guarantee a high finish.

"You may not even be in the Top 10 with scores like 10-, 12-under par [over four rounds] now," Gulbis said. 

The end result for those that follow women's golf in Canada is competing emotions.

The first is elation that the tour has found a home for two tournaments. It would have been an unthinkable development 11 years ago, when the old du Maurier Classic — a major — died. Six years ago, the Canadian Open, revived as a non-major out of the ashes of the du Maurier, very nearly disappeared altogether until CN stepped up to save it.

The second feeling, unfortunately, is a sense of detachment because there is little to get excited about with respect to Canadian talent, at least where wins on the LPGA are concerned.

As organizers of the Waterloo event, sponsored by Manulife Financial, get down to fine strokes over the next 12 months, their job might be made a lot easier were that drought to end.