Less than a decade ago, European women were among the top golfers in the world with the likes of Annika Sorenstam and Laura Davies regularly vying for the top spot and racking up victories at the majors.
These days, however, golf fans would be hard pressed to name a top European.
All the majors this year went to an American and Asians and there is only one European — No. 2-ranked Suzann Pettersen of Norway — is in the top 20. And despite Europe’s surprising Solheim Cup victory over the US in September, the head of the Ladies European Tour admits it could take some time before the region produces another global superstar.
“You would have to say the Europeans haven’t had as many victories. That is what makes a big difference to get into the top 10 in world,” said Alexandra Armas, the tour’s executive director who was in the United Arab Emirates earlier this month for the Dubai Ladies Masters. “You have to win tournaments and win tournaments regularly. Although they are very competitive, the quantitative victories these [South] Korean players are having has eluded them.”
The European women’s struggles can be chalked up to some degree to the dramatic rise of Asian players, since 30 of the top 50 come from South Korea or Japan, while the top spot is held by Yani Tseng of Taiwan.
However, players and tour officials said it also comes down to the failure of some top Europeans to play on the LPGA Tour and the weaker fields on the European Tour — purses are about half what they are in the LPGA on average and top money winners earn about one-tenth — which results in players getting far fewer ranking points than they would if they played on the LPGA or Asian tours in Japan or South Korea.
“When I was the No. 1 player for those five years, I played virtually most of my golf in America and that’s the way you’re going to do it,” said Davies, the four-time major winner who played in her record 12th Solheim Cup this year.
“So if you want to be the top three or four in the world, you have to play in America or Japan because they get huge amount of points,” she said. “Now whether that is good or bad, I don’t make the rules in the world rankings, but that is just the way it is.”
However, with all the Asian players on the LPGA Tour, qualifying is harder than it has ever been for Europeans.
“I still think there are loads of good European players out there, but not a lot of us playing in America,” said Sandra Gal, the 38th-ranked German and a member of this year’s Solheim Cup.
Part of the problem, too, comes down to the weakness of the European Ladies Tour. In contrast to the men, which features the world’s top four players in No. 1 Luke Donald, No. 2 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Lee Westwood and No. 4 Martin Kaymer, the ladies tour often has trouble getting media attention, big prize money and has been hit harder by the economic crisis — losing one unnamed tournament this year after its primary sponsor pulled out.
Sorenstam dismissed suggestions there was any crisis with European women’s golf. Pointing to the Solheim Cup victory, which Europe won for the first time in four tries, she said it demonstrated that there were plenty of top quality golfers coming up through the ranks.
“I think the state of European golf is strong as evidenced by their incredible performance in the Solheim Cup,” Sorenstam said.