Sixteen years ago, the world of women's golf converged on Colorado Springs hoping to celebrate its past and set the stage for its future.
Judy Bell, a prominent Springs businesswoman but also a pioneering matriarch inside the U.S. Golf Association, almost single-handedly brought the 50th U.S. Women's Open to The Broadmoor's historic East Course. Bell, who had been a nationally known amateur golfer herself, not only headed the tournament's host organizers but also was on the verge of becoming the USGA's first female president (1996-1997).
Bell brought in as many past Women's Open champions as humanly possible that summer, including such legends as Patty Berg, Betsy Rawls and Carol Mann, to reunite with each other and mingle with the fans.
That year, Bell and The Broadmoor took the Women's Open to a new level, breaking records for attendance and revenue while also — a huge priority for Bell — creating a major-championship stadium setting around the 18th green and The Broadmoor clubhouse, to rival any men's major on national TV.
As if all that weren't enough, the 1995 Open created a new superstar. At 24, Annika Sorenstam charged to her first professional victory (she would repeat as Open champion in 1996), igniting her career as a dominant international force.
Now it's 2011, and the Women's Open has returned. The event has flourished over the past 16 years, but the larger realm of women's golf has not fared so well amid the difficult economic times. Just look at the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, which had 33 official events in 1995 and 34 as recently as 2008. This year, that number has dropped to 24, and total prize money has fallen 30 percent (from about $60 million to about $42 million). The schedule includes only 13 tournaments (10 non-major events) inside the United States, after title sponsors pulled away during the downturn.
There is hope that the LPGA has bottomed out, with prospects for more sponsors and tournaments in years ahead. But it's clear that women's golf needs another booster shot, as in 1995.
Nothing would help that recovery more than a few legitimate stars earning the prominence that Sorenstam achieved. Not just great players, but magnetic champions who can draw crowds wherever they go. This weekend could produce such a star, so let's look at some players who could — like Sorenstam in 1995 — turn this Women's Open into their own jumping-off point.
Yani Tseng: The 22-year-old from Taiwan quietly has won the other three women's majors, four in all, and could become truly dominant. But it would help her crowd appeal to have more charisma behind her accomplishments. She's definitely the favorite here after easily winning the LPGA Championship two weeks ago.
Morgan Pressel: At 19, she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco, becoming the youngest major-winner ever. Now 23, she's established herself among the world's best. But Pressel needs a breakthrough moment to make her the LPGA's top drawing card.
Stacy Lewis: At 26, Lewis won her first major in April at the Kraft Nabisco. She definitely has a "life story," having dealt with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) that forced her to wear a brace except when playing golf for seven-plus years (11 to 18). With another win this week, Lewis could build a national following.
Vicky Hurst: If you want a longshot, this 21-year-old from Florida could be just that. She dominated the Futures Tour at 18 and is one of the LPGA's longest hitters. Already well-known in Florida from her high school rivalry with Pressel, Hurst and her Korean mother (her father, a retired Air Force colonel, died suddenly in 2006) would make a great TV angle. She just needs that one huge victory.
Paula Creamer: The defending Women's Open champion, at 24, could rise to the level Sorenstam did by making it back-to-back championships.
Michelle Wie: For all the expectations that engulfed her as a teen, Wie still never has won a pro tournament on American soil. She's 21 now, so time is still on her side, and she's the LPGA's most recognizable player. If she could pull off a Women's Open title, her stature would skyrocket.