Solheim Cup showed market there for women's golf

SUGAR GROVE: A roar went up and thousands of fans immediately headed to the next hole, a wave of red washing through the trees at Rich Harvest Farms.

It's a commonplace scene when Tiger Woods is playing. This rock star treatment, though, was for the women. From the practice rounds to the closing ceremony, fans — young and old, male and female, hardcore golfers and people who don't know a pitch from a putt — packed the Solheim Cup, and players delivered with one of the most riveting events in years.

It was the perfect advertisement for women's golf. The next question is, could it also be the remedy for the LPGA Tour, which has seemed more like a bad soap opera in recent months?

"You want to know how this will help the LPGA? I just think if more people could come out and actually watch us play — I've been out here, as you guys know, a long time, and I've never seen the golf that these women play now," veteran Juli Inkster said Sunday night.

"We have a great product, and the more people see that and write about it, it'll be great for us."

Like everything else, the economy has taken its toll on the LPGA Tour. There are 28 official money events this year, six fewer than last year. The Corning Classic was played for the last time this year, and McDonald's is dropping its sponsorship of the LPGA Championship.

But most of the tour's problems centered around former commissioner Carolyn Bivens, who was essentially forced out by the players earlier this summer. Bivens was credited with signing new TV deals, upgrading the quality of courses and increasing coverage of child care, but her missteps got the most attention and often overshadowed the players.

She was widely criticized last year when she proposed an English-only policy for tour players. Though never instituted, it garnered wide attention, with one California lawmaker calling it "borderline racist." Early in Bivens' tenure, a dispute over media credentials disrupted the Fields Open.

"We've got some great golf," Inkster said. "If people would write about the golf and not about all the other stuff, we would be great."

That, though, is now up to the players.

After rallying for what turned out to be a critical halve in the Americans' 16-12 victory over Europe on Sunday, Inkster said this was her last Solheim Cup and that she'll play a limited schedule next year. It's hardly a surprise, considering the seven-time major champion is 49 and hasn't won since 2006.

But it's the end of an era, and means the tour is firmly in the hands of its youngsters.

Take the U.S. Solheim Cup team. Half of the players were 25 or younger. Michelle Wie, whose 3-0-1 record led the team, is all of 19. Paula Creamer, who contributed three points, is 23. Morgan Pressel, whose 3-and-2 victory over Anna Nordqvist sealed the win, is 21.

"I said thank you to Beth Daniel because if she hadn't picked Juli Inkster, I would have been the oldest on the team," joked Cristie Kerr, who is just 31.

It's not just youth, though. The kids can play.

Brittany Lincicome, 23, won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the year's first major. Creamer has eight wins on the LPGA Tour. Pressel and Wie, of course, were in contention for a major before they got their driver's licenses.

"A few years ago, it looked like American golf was very old, and we had quite an old team on the Solheim Cup," Pressel said. "Now it's younger than ever."

The key, as always, is Wie.

She has drawn comparisons to Woods since she was in grade school, and had a deal with Nike as soon as she turned pro. Whether it's her skill — she can drive it further than some men — or that she dared to tee it up against the guys, she captivates fans and has the potential to drive the game to new heights like Woods did with the PGA Tour.

But she has to win, and she has to show more of the personality that charmed fans at the Solheim Cup.

Her teammates had raved about her, promising that everyone would see an entirely different side of her. Sure enough, Wie was so animated that U.S. captain Beth Daniel worried at one point she was too excited. She screamed after big shots and pumped her fists. She played to the crowd, raising her arms and cupping a hand to her ear to ask for more noise. When the Americans clinched the cup, it was Wie who grabbed a big American flag and ran around the 18th green.

By the end of the weekend, fans were greeting her with whimsical cheers of "Wheeee!"

"It was the most fun I've had playing," Wie said. "I think I've said that multiple times this week, but every hole seemed like walking down 18 of a major championship times 100. I mean, these crowds were absolutely amazing, and to have 11 other team members as great as these people, it was just so fabulous."

But it's another two years before the LPGA will have this kind of lovefest again. As the players went their respective ways Monday, the challenge will be to maintain the enthusiasm of the Solheim Cup when they're opponents instead of teammates.

"We're going to be good," Inkster said. "You guys just have to be patient with us."