Monet Inami, a professional golfer from Japan, won a silver medal for her country at last year’s Summer Olympics. Inami beat Lydia Kowho won the tour 17 times, including the Evian Championship in 2015.
Both were golf prodigies, with Ko turning pro at the age of 17 in 2014. They were also products of the national golf academies. (New Zealand in case of Co.)
“I became a member of the Japan national team,” Inami said through a translator at the age of 15. “Then I was able to participate in golf matches abroad, which I had not done before.”
“One of my goals in my amateur days was to become a member of the national team,” she said. “After being selected as a member of the Japan national team and starting to compete as a member, I felt like I was part of the team.”
Inami is part of what many countries have developed that is giving momentum to their women’s golf programs and bringing more players into the professional circuit as well as events such as Amundi Evian Championshipwhich kicks off Thursday in France.
South Korea took the lead a decade ago, and many other countries have followed suit, including England, Scotland, Canada, much of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
A notable exception to this list is the United States, which lacks any national women’s or men’s golf program. That’s what Mike Wang, the new CEO of the US Golf Association, hopes to change.
“As LPGA commissioner, I was amazed that every player came out of the team program, except for the USA,” Wang said in an interview ahead of the Curtis Cup, which pitted the top US female amateurs against their British and Irish counterparts. .
“When Lydia Ko was 11 years old in New Zealand, she joined the New Zealand team,” he said. “They taught her stretching, proper nutrition, working with caddies. I love the global part of this game, but as head of the USGA, if we don’t create the best assembly line for American golf, we can’t compete.”
He pointed to the world rankings. South Korea has 33 players in the top 100 and 148 golfers top 500. The United States, with more than six times the population, is the third highest-ranked female player. (Japan is in second place.)
Wang said he would like to change that.
“Imagine if I take 500 of the best young golfers and create a $40 million grant program to get them through the national program,” he said. “When I think about promoting a game, that’s part of it.”
Ahead of the US Open in June, Wang announced that the USGA has hired Heather Daley-Donofrio, a former professional golfer who led tourism operations and communications for the LPGA, to manage the US Development Program, which aims to create a quasi-national team for boys and girls aged 12 to 17 years.
Although there is no clear plan, the mere mention of national support sounds like music to young players, coaches and parents.
“No. 1 complaint I get from parents and players: Why is there no Team USA?” said Spencer Graham III, founder and head coach of the Junior Golf Performance Academy in Naples, Fla. “Every other country has a federation backing the top 12 or top 20 players. But America can’t put it together? I don’t really get it.”
Graham coaches many high-profile young golfers from the United States and also coaches top female golfers from Canada and Morocco who are supported by their national federations.
“Some of these parents pay $100,000 to $150,000 a year for travel,” he said of his American students. “And then you have Korean or Canadian teams putting that money in for their players. I coach Sofia Essakali, who is 13 years old. She receives financial support from Morocco so her parents don’t have to gamble thousands of dollars for her to travel.”
Support can take several forms. Rebecca Hembrothe manager of the women’s program at England Golf, said expenses such as private practice and travel to competitions were covered for team members.
But the benefits go beyond money. For an individual sport like golf, having a team is essential.
“When I played for Japan in the Olympics, it was like playing for the Japanese national team,” Inami said. “It didn’t bother me. I was able to enjoy the matches. I was ready.”
Ryan Potter, deputy head coach for the Wake Forest University women’s golf team, said the national teams are allowing practice and preparation to begin earlier, long before golfers enter college.
“In the US, this is nonsense,” he said. “You are taught by those who may be close to you. You are also a product of how much money you owe or are willing to spend. Can you afford it?”
Peer support is key. Katie Cranston of Team Canada won the Junior World Championship this year.
“The Canadian team was there, all dressed the same,” Graham said. “You could hear the Canadian players cheering for their team. You have the entire national team cheering for one parent. It’s almost a disadvantage.”
There is also the frequency and variety of competitions.
In professional tournaments, golfers play with their own ball and they alone are responsible for the lowest possible score. In team competitions such as the Curtis Cup or the Solheim Cup, its professional counterpart, players spend several practice days playing different forms of golf, such as taking turns hitting each other in the hole.
National academies pay special attention to such games, he said. kevin craggs, who was National Coach for the Scottish Women’s Golf Association and is now Director of Golf at IMG Academy, a private sports school in Bradenton, Florida.
“We played a lot of matches at the Scottish national level,” he said, “a format based on holes won, not on the number of strokes on the score sheet. “It teaches you to be aggressive. If I took a 4 and you took a 10 on the hole, you only lost 1. The score doesn’t matter.”
Now working with young elite golfers in the United States, he makes it fun to keep young golfers passionate about the game. “In the US, a lot of players don’t get to know the fun parts of the game,” Craggs said. “We have to make sports fun and learning fun, and then specialize.”
Inami said she has great memories of being a teenager on the Japanese national team.
“We used to have fun, but we still compete with each other,” she said. “It helped me to continue to compete at a professional level, having so much fun.”
There are also disadvantages, namely excessive pressure. Some national federations are also working hard to ensure that the players they support become professional players, even at the cost of playing college golf, Graham of the Junior Golf Performance Academy said.
Martin Blake, Golf Australia’s media manager, said the federation had offered team members two options.
“We encourage young female players to go through a college system that Gaby Ruffels (University of Southern California) as well as Katherine Kirk (Pepperdine University) did,” he said. “Our elite amateurs are a mixture of college and housewife. Those who stay at home are funded to travel to international events such as the US Amateur.”
However, success is a great way to inspire players to take part in big championships like Evian. The Hembrough of England Golf Company noted that recent pros from its program include LPGA stars Charlie Hull, Georgia Hall and Bronte Lowe.
“This is building a legacy of success,” she said.