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, golf fans would be hard pressed to name one top European.
This year’s majors went to an American and three Asians, and there is only one European -- No. 2-ranked Suzann Pettersen of Norway -- in the top 20. And despite Europe’s surprising Solheim Cup victory over the Americans 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 the world,” said Alexandra Armas, the tour’s executive director. “You have to win tournaments and win tournaments regularly. Although they are very competitive, the quantative victories these 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. But players and tour officials said it also comes down to the failure of some top Europeans to play on the LPGA Tour. European Tour purses are on average about half what they are on the LPGA Tour, resulting in players getting far fewer ranking points.
“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 a 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.”
But 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.
“I think it’s very hard for European players who go over to America and get their card. I’ve heard from a lot of girls who say that if they just grow up in Europe and never played in the States and go to Q-School, they have a hard time. Q-School is played in Florida. It’s Bermuda grass and totally different from the course that they are used to.”
While the men’s European Tour features the world’s top four players in Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, the ladies tour often has trouble getting media attention and big prize money, and has been hit hard by the economic crisis -- losing one tournament this year after its primary sponsor pulled out.
“There is a big difference in prize money and you will probably find the same difference between the PGA and European Tour,” Armas said. “That is why Luke Donald and everyone goes and plays there. Obviously we try and find ways to give more value back to events so they can generate more sponsorship. It’s a tough time. You can’t push too hard and lose events.”
Sorenstam, the Swedish former great, dismissed suggestions there was any crisis in European women’s golf. Pointing to the Solheim Cup, 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.
“Recognition for European players is not necessarily the situation,” he added. “It is recognition for female players in general. It would be great if one day female players could play for the same prize money and exposure that the men get, but we are simply not there yet.”
Fellow Swede Caroline Hedwall, named the European Tour rookie of the year after winning four tournaments, said that Europeans will challenge for the top again.
Hedwall leads a pack of promising young players including Gal, Anna Nordqvist of Sweden and 16-year-old Klara Spilkova of the Czech Republic, who this year became the youngest player to ever make the tour.
“We do have a lot of good golfers from Europe and I think within a couple of years they will be way more up there,” the 40th-ranked Hedwall said. “I hope to get up there next year. Of course, you want to be among the best players in the world.”
But Armas cautioned that Europeans will have a difficult time knocking Tseng off the top spot in the coming years.
“It’s going to be difficult for anyone,” Armas said. “We are in era of her (Tseng’s) dominance like Annika was for 10 years and Lorena Ochoa dominated for five years. But it will happen.”