Usually, a new idea needs time to simmer before it's clear genius was part of the recipe. That was not the case with the UL International Crown, which debuted in Maryland at Caves Valley in 2014 and was immediately embraced as a brilliantly innovative format. This week’s clash at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Incheon, South Korea, is the next step in the event’s growth – making the team competition global not just in name and nature, but location as well.
Spain was the upset winner in the first UL International Crown, smiling and fist-pumping its way past Sweden with Japan and South Korea tied for third. The United States was a sixth, a disappointment eased when the Americans won at the Merit Club in 2016, holding off South Korea by one point. This year, South Korea goes home as the No. 1 seed with the United States No. 2. The others in the field are Australia, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Thailand, England and Sweden.
The uniqueness of the International Crown is summed up in its slogan: 32 Players, 8 countries, 1 crown. But to understand its ingenuity requires a look at the past. This event flows out of the confluence of several competitions and one wise decision. Let’s take a look back.
The granddaddy of professional team golf is the Ryder Cup, first played in 1927 and dominated for the next 50 years by the United States over Great Britain & Ireland with 18 victories, three losses and one tie. In 1979, because of that domination and the arrival of a dashing young talent from Spain – Seve Ballesteros – the GBI team was expanded to include Europe. It did not take long for that idea to pay off. Since 1985, Europe has won 11 Ryder Cups, lost only five and halved another as the event grew into one of the biggest events in golf.
The women’s game got into the act in 1990 when the Solheim Cup – a biennial battle between the United States and Europe – was first played. When the Yanks won that inaugural competition in a romp – there were six, future Hall of Famers on the eight-woman USA team – there were concerns that it, too, would be marked by a series of American blowouts. That fear was mollified in 1992 when Europe crushed the USA in a shocking upset.
Now this is where it gets really interesting. By the early 1990s, men’s golf started to be dominated by players from countries not eligible for the Ryder Cup: Greg Norman of Australia, Nick Price of Zimbabwe, Ernie Els of South Africa and Vijay Singh from Fiji among them. In order to give those players a stage in a team event, the PGA Tour created the Presidents Cup, which pitted a team from the U.S. against an International Team beginning in 1994.
A little over a decade later, the LPGA faced a similar dilemma as more and more top players emerged from non-Solheim Cup countries, like South Korea, Japan, Australia and China. There were serious whispers that the European team should be expanded to include the entire world. Those whispers were a virtual shout when the 2011 Solheim Cup arrived at Killeen Castle in Ireland with the Americas having won the three previous competitions.
But that chatter was shut down with one hour of brilliant golf. Team Europe won 3.5 of the final 4 points of singles at Killeen Castle to capture the cup 15-13. And when Europe won for the first time on American soil at Colorado Golf Club in 2013, it was clear the Solheim Cup was simply too compelling – and too competitive – to be tampered with.
So with the Solheim Cup safe, what was to be done with those players from nations not eligible for the Solheim Cup? In the Presidents Cup, the International Team is a contrived entity. Unlike Europe in the Solheim Cup and Ryder Cup – which has a flag, an anthem and an identity through the Europe Union – the only thing International Team members have in common is that they come from countries that can’t play the Ryder Cup.
That lack of identity might be one reason the Presidents Cup’s International Team has one victory, one tie and 10 losses. There is simply not the same us versus them intensity that exists in the Solheim Cup and the Ryder Cup. Truth be told, players from Japan and South Korea don’t want to play WITH each other but rather AGAINST each other. There are rivalries there dating back centuries, the same with China and Japan or China and South Korea.
The answer, the wise heads that run the LPGA figured, was not to imitate the Presidents Cup with an International Team but to create something innovative: An International Crown. A new event was created with intense rivalries and the Solheim Cup was allowed to build on its rich history. Now that’s a win-win situation.
By every measuring stick, the International Crown is a success. Ten countries have qualified for the first three competitions and of the six teams in all three, five are from countries not Solheim Cup-eligible: Australia, Chinese Taipei, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The sixth is the United States.
In an extremely short period of time, the International Crown has established itself as a model for international competition and it has lived up to its global name with a team from Europe winning the first and North America the second. Now, it travels to Asia in the next celebration of the LPGA – golf’s global tour.