The Spirit International – Watch if You Love Amateur Golf

The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship has been around since 2001 but many people that love golf don’t know about it.  The video below is a nice overview of the championship.

I learned about it because I follow Paige MacKenzie on Twitter and Paige is the captain of the 2013 United States team. Paige is also a former Spirit International competitor.  I watched the last hour of coverage on Thursday and Friday online and really enjoyed it. I wish I could have seen more but it is impossible to watch this type of event during a work week.  You can watch it Saturday (November 2, 2013)  via the live webcast at the Spirit International Website.

There are only four players for each country (20 Countries represented by 2 men and 2 women).  It may be a small field but the golfers are some of the best young players in the world and it is a nice preview of what we can expect to see in the coming years on the professional tours.  Past Spirit International competitors include US stars like Brandt Snedeker and Paula Creamer; as well as international stars such as Jason Day, Charl Schwatzel, Lorena Ochoa, and Ya-Ni Tseng. As they say, the list goes on and on.

The format is interesting because they have multiple competitions which include:

  • International Team- combined best ball of the men’s team and women’s team.
  • Men’s Team- Best ball of two players (four ball stroke play)
  • Women’s Team- Best ball of two players (four ball stroke play)
  • Men’s Individual- Most holes under par.
  • Women’s Individual- Most holes under par.

So you can cheer for your favorite country, men’s team, women’s team, and individuals.  I want the United States and Canada to do well because I have lived in the United States most of my life and feel an allegiance to the US; but I was born in Canada and I have a soft spot for athletes from Canada.  I hope that Brooke Henderson (a young Canadian golfer whose career I follow) does well. I am happy to report that as of the end of the second round Brooke is in first place for the Women’s Individual competition.

The United States is leading the overall competition. Check out the Leaderboard to see the other country standings. And if you can’t watch the live webcast then the next best thing is following the championship updates on twitter @thespiritgolf.

UPDATE (November 3 2013) – USA wins overall and Brooke Henderson wins Women’s Championship.  See all results at the Spirit Website.

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LPGA (Q-School) Qualifying Tournaments Overview

One of the rights of passage for golfers that want to be “on tour” is Q-school (or as the LPGA likes to call it, LPGA Qualifying Tournaments.)  The LPGA kicks-off the 2012 tournaments today, September 4th with the first of three stages.  The three stages culminate in December with the final event determining which golfers get “LPGA Membership” for the 2013 golf season.

Overview of the LPGA Q-School Tournament process:

If you want to learn all the details you can go to the LPGA website and download the PDF’s.  The information below is a basic overview for those interested in the stages of qualifying.

Stage I – Takes place from September 4 to September 7, 2012 and is 72-holes of stroke play competition. The total field is 240 players.  The players must be 18-years-old by January 1, 2013 (the age requirement to play on the LPGA tour unless the player petitions for a special exemption.)  The players also pay a $1,500 entry fee to compete.  The top 60 plus ties will advance to Stage II.

Stage II – Takes place from October 9 to October 12, 2012 and is 72-holes of stroke play competition.  The total field is 216 players.  This stage includes the players advancing from stage I and players from the Symetra Tour, Class A LPGA members (they are not on tour right now), Rolex-Ranked players, and CN (Canadian Tour) Qualifiers.  The entrance fee is $1,500 for the Stage 1 qualifiers and $3,000 for the other players.  The top 70 plus ties will advance to Stage III.

Stage III – Takes place November 28-December 2, 2012 and is 90-holes of stroke play competition (with a 72-hole cut.)  This stage will include the players from Stage II, Symetra tour (money leaders that did not get their card as part of the Volvik Race for the Card ) and current LPGA tour players that need to improve their status. The goal of all the players from stage three is to get full-status to be eligible for all LPGA events.  The entrance fee for Stage III is $2,500.  The top players will get LPGA “membership” (number of members and status are TBD) and all other players will get Symetra Tour status for 2013.

It is important to note that player status ties to the LPGA Player Priority List which is “used to fill all Standard Eligibility Tournament fields.”  For example, in the 2012 season, the top 80 players on the money list from 2011 have first priority to play in tournaments.  The next group on the “priority list” is the top 20 players in career earnings money list (e.g. in 2012 only one player has this status, Laura Davies).  The priority list has many status categories and the lower the priority status the less likely a player will get into a tournament.  You can access the current 2012 list at the LPGA website, Player drop down menu will provide a link to the Priority List PDF.

Players to watch in Stage 1:

If you are a golf geek, you will recognize the names of the players that I will be following in stage I of Q-school.  They are Cheyenne Woods, Jaye Marie Green, and Brooke Pancake.

(1) Cheyenne Woods is the niece of Tiger and so everyone will be watching to see if she makes the LPGA tour.  Woods turned professional in May 2012 and won her first event on the Suncoast Series where the top prize money was $3,000.  The Suncost series is a mini-tour.  Think of the Suncost mini-tour as equivalent to Double-A minor league baseball — a step below the Triple-A league (e.g. in women’s golf the Symetra Tour).  Of course, the “major league” equivalent in women’s golf is the LPGA.

(2) Jaye Marie Green is an amateur that I followed during the US Women’s Amateur.  Green’s claim to fame is that she came in second behind Lydia Ko.  Green is ranked 5th in the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR).  Considering how “hot” Ko is right now, I was impressed with how Green competed in the final day of match play at the US Women’s Amateur.

(3) Brooke Pancake caught my attention when she clinched a final putt to help her college team, Alabama, win the NCAA National title. Pancake also won the 2012 Honda Sports Award in golf, given annually to the nation’s top female collegiate golfer.   I will admit that Pancake’s personal story is very moving. In her senior year in high school her father committed suicide and it is impressive that she has done so well after such a tragic loss. Pancake turned professional in June 2012 and plays on the Symentra tour.

Golf Channel Big Break Atlantis Players at Q-School

If you are a Big Break fan, you will be happy to know that a number of Golf Channel cast members from Big Break Atlantis are playing in Stage I.  The six players to watch in Stage I are: Shannon Fish, Natalia Ghilzon, Meghan Hardin, Allison Micheletti, Christina Stockton, and Kelly Villarreal.

The winner of Big Break Atlantis, Marcela Leon; and the 2nd place finisher (and fan favorite), Selanee Henderson are already listed in the preliminary field for the Stage II tournament. Gloriana Soto and Anya Alvarez are also listed in the Stage II Preliminary field.

Lydia Ko makes history, again. Is Ko an “amateur” in name only?

It was amazing to watch Lydia Ko win the CN Canadian Women’s Open.  However, what was really surprising was that Ko was the lead story on Golf Channel’s wrap-up show, Golf Central.  It is rare that a ladies event overshadows a PGA event, but Lydia Ko’s win overshadowed Nick Watney’s win at the Barclays.

I wrote about Lydia winning the US Women’s Amateur just a few weeks ago.  Ko is an amazing golfer; but what is really surprising is her demeanor on the golf course and during her press conferences.  She has a lovely personality.  She smiles all the time (and said in the press conference she tries to smile even when she makes a bad shot).  She is quick to acknowledge all the people supporting her golf career and seems to recognize that her amateur schedule is like a job.  She stated in various interviews that she has missed many months of school with all the world traveling she is doing for golf.

As I watched Ko play, I noticed she had a Srixon logo on her golf cap and a New Zealand Golf Logo on her shirt.  I did a bit of research and found the New Zealand Golf website.  As an amateur Ko cannot have sponsors but what she does have is the support of the New Zealand Golf Federation.  Lydia Ko is one of the shinning stars of the New Zealand Golf Federation’s National Development Program (or better known to the golf viewing public as the “Srixon Golf Academy.”)

When you read the details of the “National Development Programme” on the New Zealand Golf Website, you realize how much of an advantage players supported by a national federation have over an amateur without such support.  The website states “The National Development Programme is the pathway that assists young emerging talent from throughout New Zealand to succeed on the international stage.”  Here is what the website states a Srixon Golf Academy player can expect:

  • Primary coach
  • Sports psychologist
  • Strength and conditioning coach
  • Golf specific physiotherapist
  • They will also have funding assistance to ensure their attendance at national events throughout their term in the Academy.
  • For the very best of the Academy there will be a contestable ‘International Tournament Campaign Fund’ to help assist them create and manage their own international tournament campaigns.  (Note: the website even lists specific tournaments in Asia, UK/Europe, Canada, and the USA).

Wow, given the “funding” support it is hard to call Lydia Ko an Amateur.  Clearly, the financial support to travel all over the world to compete against the worlds best golfers is a luxury most American amateurs would love.  Actually, I think a lot of “journeymen” players and “rookies” on the professional tours would love that kind of financial support.

The support Lydia Ko receives does not take away from her talent or her win.  She is still a 15-year-old playing an individual sport and it is her talent and mental fortitude that has allowed her to win at the highest level of golf.  However, the support Ko receives “outside the ropes” is not something all amateurs get.  Judy Rankin, Golf Hall of Fame member and commentator for LPGA golf events, often comments during her on-air TV analysis that international amateurs (supported by golf federations) have an advantage over American amateurs.  The lack of international travel and opportunity to play against the best in the world is a big issue for the development of American Amateurs.

Is Lydia Ko like other Amateurs at all?  One way Lydia Ko is a normal amateur is that she does not have the pressure a professional has to win.  Professionals feel pressure because golf is how they make their living.  Maybe a good example is Lexi Thompson.  In 2007, at age 12, Thompson was the youngest golfer to qualify for the US Women’s Open and turned pro at 15 but did not have her LPGA card. Thompson was entering LPGA tournaments on sponsor exemptions. Thompson made history when she won her first LPGA event (the Navistar LPGA Classic) at 16 years, 7 months and 8 days old.  Given her win, the LPGA waived the age minimum/restriction and granted Lexi Thompson her card.  But as a professional, Thompson has struggled this year and missed the cut at the CN Canadian Women’s Open.  The other past “amateur phenom” to miss the cut this week — Michelle Wie.

Is Lydia Ko an amateur in name only?  I say yes because she plays like a professional, she travels and competes worldwide like a professional, and she has “financial support” that mirrors the economic benefit to cover travel costs that a sponsor deal might cover (without the official sponsor).

Who knows when Lydia Ko will become a professional.  Until that time, I’m sure Lydia Ko will continue to amaze the golf viewing public with her amazing talent.  The next big question is when she does turn professional, will she continue her phenomenal rise?  Will Ko be the next Annika or Tiger?.  Only time will tell.  One thing is for sure —  the golf world will be watching.

Team Competition and Amateurs should be part of Golf in the 2016 Olympics

This week with the Summer Olympics in full-swing there are some great articles being written about golf returning to the Olympics (Rio 2016).  The article written by Brent Kelley titled “What Will the Men’s and Women’s Olympic Golf Tournaments Look Like” provides an easy to understand explanation and a list of what the teams would look like if golf were in the Olympics today.

The essence of the article states that the Olympic format will probably be similar to the 72-hole tournament that is currently used on the professional tours.  This makes sense for individual medals.  The article also explains that the top 15 golfers (men and women, by professional world rankings) would automatically qualify; and that each country would be allowed two players (which accommodates countries with no professionals in the top 15). Therefore, at a minimum, each country would have two players competing (in the men’s and women’s events).  Some countries could have more than two players (for example, there are currently eight American men golfers in the world top 15.)

It all seems fair when you first read the details but two things popped into my mind.  First, why is there no team competition?  Given the popularity of the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup it surprised me that team match play was not part of the format for the Olympics.  The Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup is USA against Europe, but I would think a match play format with all the countries playing for medals could work.  There is a strong probability that the USA, South Korea, or any of the other countries with the top professionals would win, but who cares because fans still get to cheer for their country’s team.  Team match play might even give a less known country a “Cinderella” experience.  Team competition is not unprecedented in the Olympics (e.g. gymnastics has both team and individual formats.)

The second thing that came to my mind was there is no opportunity for top amateur golfers.  It’s true that “amateur status” has not been an Olympic requirement for many years.  If you are old enough to have watched the Olympics before 1986, then you remember the communist countries that dominated the games because their athletes were not “amateurs” in the true spirit of the Olympics.  In 1986, the International Olympic Committee changed the Olympic Charter to allow “all the world’s great male and female athletes to participate” so professional status was no longer an issue.  But using the world golf rankings in 2016 eliminates the ability for the top amateur golfers to qualify.  It reminds me of when the “Dream Team” was announced for basketball for the 1992 Olympics.  Only one player on the team was a college star; the rest were all from the NBA.  I remember feeling sorry for the amateur players (mostly top college players) that had their Olympic dreams vanish when professionals were selected for the dream team.

I have no idea what the final format will be for golf in the 2016 Rio Olympics.  However, if I were on the committee to decide the format, I would suggest adding a team competition.  Also, let each country add the top male and female amateur to their rosters and add a “lowest amateur” medals category.  This would be inline with the current golf “low amateur” awarded at professional tournaments today.

The Olympics provide the biggest stage in the world for sports. I think it would be a missed opportunity to limit the competition to 72-hole stroke play.  I vote for showcasing all aspects of golf — amateurs, professionals, stroke play, and match play.