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LPGA in favour of overseas champions

When LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw sees trophy after trophy being hoisted by foreign-born players, he sees the tour growing in stature, interest and popularity around the world.

But could the LPGA Tour flourish even more if the next big star were an American?

"It certainly couldn't hurt," Votaw said Wednesday at the Asahi Ryokuken International.

There have been seven international winners in seven tournaments this season, and there hasn't been a U.S. champion in 17 straight events, since Meg Mallon won the Canadian Women's Open in August.

But the lack of American winners won't "cause us to have limited growth," Votaw said the day before the start of the tournament at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club.

Denver's Jill McGill, an LPGA regular the past eight years, hopes she can end the U.S. losing streak here. But she says there's no shame losing to overseas stars like Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak or Karrie Webb.

"In your home country, you like to root for your own people," McGill said. "I think that's why it's been made a big deal."

At times, it looks as if the gap is widening between the Internationals and the Americans. The top five money winners, led by Sorenstam, were born overseas. Miami's Christie Kerr is the top U.S. player at No. 6. Ninth-place Pat Hurst is the only other American in the top 10.

Twice this season Kerr has tied for second, including last week at the Michelob Light Open at Kingsmill. Hurst and Heather Bowie (13th on the money list) also have tied for second, the best U.S. showing this season.

Sorenstam is playing in Tokyo this week before facing the men at the PGA Tour's Colonial event in two weeks.

Both of the past champions at Asahi Ryokuken are foreign-born. Tina Fischer was the first German to win on the LPGA Tour when she earned the 2001 victory. Janice Moodie of Scotland took her first career victory here last year.

Moodie thinks the Yanks get a bad rap about this. After all, she says, rising young stars from around the globe come to America to hone their skills on the college circuit or work with respected U.S. teachers.

"It is almost the world vs. America," Moodie said. "This is the place to play; this is the place to be. So that is why I think you are getting a huge influx of international players."

A look at the driving ranges and the putting greens on the LPGA Tour shows that the trend is growing.

"I don't know what's happening," Moodie said. "We do seem to have an awful lot of Korean girls coming on, and they seem very focused on what they are doing."

Pak and Grace Park, both of South Korea, have won three of the seven tournaments this year. Sorenstam has one victory, along with Patricia Meunier-Lebouc of France, Candie Kung of Taiwan and Wendy Doolan of Australia.

Park, who won last week's inaugural Kingsmill tournament in Williamsburg, Va., said Koreans have a work ethic that's hard for anyone in the world to match. She wants fans, though, to focus on exceptional golf and not nationality.

"We should be proud to say we have the best ones on tour, rather than trying to say 'We are Koreans, Swedish, English, American,'" Park said.

Votaw says LPGA fans and sponsors already do that. Foreign success the past few years has led global companies like Asahi Ryokuken, Evian, Wheetabix, Samsung and Takefuji to become LPGA partners. Tour events will take place in France, Canada, Britain, Korea and Japan this year. The Solheim Cup team matches between the United States and Europe - which Votaw points out that the Americans won last year - will be played in Sweden this September.

Soon enough, Votaw says, an American like Kerr, Laura Diaz or Natalie Gulbis will make their mark on the LPGA. In the meantime, Votaw says the tour's international TV rights fees and merchandising fees keep increasing, and more hits on the LPGA Web site come from foreign fans.

"With the world getting smaller and smaller every single day, the fact that our international exposure is getting bigger and bigger positions us very, very well," Votaw said.


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