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Number of Americans on LPGA Tour dwindle

An optimist can point out there likely will be 11 Americans playing in this week's ADT Championship at Trump International. That's more players than any other country will have in the elite event open only to the top 30 finishers on the LPGA Tour's money list.

A pessimist, however, could remind everyone this will be the fewest number of Americans in the nine-year history of the tournament, and the majority of them are closer to the end of their careers than the start.

Indeed, almost half of the Americans (five) expected to play at Trump are in their 40s: defending champion Meg Mallon is 41, Juli Inkster is 44, Rosie Jones is 45, Beth Daniel is 48 and Sherri Steinhauer is 41. Three others are in their mid-to-late 30s -- Pat Hurst is 35, Kim Saiki is 38 and Michelle Redman is 39 -- and only three are in their 20s (Cristie Kerr is 27, Christina Kim is 20 and Stacy Prammanasudh is 25).

Contrast that to the nine Koreans who qualified for the season-ending event (although two of them, Se Ri Pak and Mi Hyun Kim, are skipping the ADT). All are in their 20s, with their best golf supposedly ahead of them.

So should the LPGA be concerned about this missing generation of young American stars? After all, Beth Bauer is back at Q-School, Kelli Kuehne and Natalie Gulbis are still learning how to win and Dorothy Delasin and Laura Diaz have taken a step back this year.

Or is the U.S. simply in a lull period while it reloads for its next generation that includes teenage phenoms such as Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome?

That depends on who you talk to. A pair of Hall of Famers admit they're a little concerned about the current state of American golf on the LPGA Tour.

"They sure don't make them like they used to," said Nancy Lopez, the darling of the LPGA Tour in the 1970s. "The purses have grown so much out here, I think sometimes the young players take things for granted. They've had a lot handed to them because of people like Judy Rankin and Kathy Whitworth. They can't be satisfied just making good money. They should want to be the best.

"I think the young players are working on it. They just don't get it yet."

JoAnne Carner, another Hall of Famer who still plays occasionally on the LPGA Tour, says she doesn't see the same commitment to the game from the Americans as she does the foreign players, particularly the Koreans.

"They're all hard workers. You see them here at sunrise and they leave at sunset," Carner said of the Koreans. "You don't see that from the Americans, not to that degree. The young Americans should be playing better."

But two of the aging Americans in the field, Mallon and Daniel, see signs of better days for their young compatriots. Maybe not right away, but soon.

"Five years ago, I was really worried about our American system, because we were not kicking out great players," said Mallon, who's five points away from qualifying for the Hall of Fame. "But now I see Paula Creamer, Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie. They're going to be an incredible group."

Daniel, who last year became the oldest to win on the LPGA Tour, also sees some promising signs from the younger Americans such as Kim and Reilly Rankin. Daniel believes the current Korean wave of players, like the one experienced from Sweden in the 1990s, is a cyclical phenomenon.

"I actually think we're better now than we were two years ago," Daniel said. "I think we have some good up-and-coming players. They're good kids and they work hard. I think it will pay off."

LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw said he doesn't understand the fuss. He points out the tour, with the struggles of women's golf in Europe, has clearly become the world's top female circuit.

And while the number of top Americans is increasing, it's still more than any other country. Korea will likely have seven, Australia three and Sweden two.

"I sometimes have to remind myself of that," Votaw said. "This tour is a huge opportunity for everyone. I saw a story recently that said in 2050, the U.S. population will be 400 million, with the projections there will be 100 million Hispanics. That's 25 percent. We have to be ready for the continued melting of our country."

With more foreign players coming to the LPGA Tour every year, sheer mathematics explain why there's going to be a dropoff in the percentages. When the LPGA started its season-ending event in 1996, 24 Americans played in the first one and 22 the next year.

Now it's half of that.

"We're just as good or better as the American golfers were 10 to 15 years ago," said Heather Bowie, who's 40th on the money list. "There's just so much more competition from players around the world now."

So there's no denying that Americans are playing a lesser role on the LPGA Tour. The big question is, is that good for the LPGA Tour? Votaw believes history has shown it is.

"The facts are that during the last three years, when a lot of the foreign players have come onto the LPGA Tour, we've had increased attendance and TV coverage and vastly more print coverage," Votaw said. "Now I could live in a parallel universe and say maybe that growth would be even bigger if these were all Americans. But I believe people just want to see good golf."

The PGA Tour proved that in the 1990s, when Greg Norman, Nick Price and Nick Faldo were in their prime. Golf fans didn't care if they were from Australia, Zimbabwe of England; just that they produced great golf.

Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, who was an American teenage prodigy in the late-1980s and early-1990s, says it's not essential for the LPGA to have all top American golfers -- as long as they can connect with Americans fans.

"I think we need to have the greatest golfers in the world, but we need to have the greatest golfers that people can relate to, no matter what the nationality is," Goetze-Ackerman said. "If we can sell that product, we'll be a success. If we don't, then we won't be."

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