No one knew what to expect. When the first iteration of the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown kicked off at Caves Valley Golf Club outside Baltimore in 2014, some fans came in skeptical. Eight countries with four players each: how, exactly, was this going to work? Others never got that far. They questioned the necessity of another nationalistic match play event altogether. Didn’t the Solheim Cup check that box? Then there were a few who thought that if you were going to stage another contest between nations, it should be a three-way stroke play/match play hybrid between the Americas, Europe and the rest of the world, a twist on the format of the Presidents Cup. That was how this new contest was originally pitched. But that idea was quickly shot down when then LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan asked, “What color is the flag of the Americas?”
It’s easy to smile now. With 75 days until the next edition of the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown gets underway at TPC Harding Park, those original concerns seem silly. The Crown has become a wildly popular and successful event with players from around the world fighting to make their respective teams, and each country doing all they can to qualify into the top eight.
Caves Valley, the first host site, had a lot to do with adding instant credibility to the event. The corporate club northwest of Baltimore was a vision for most of the players and fans. “It’s in great shape and is a good match play golf course,” said Paula Creamer, who was on the U.S. team at the time.
“You want to see birdies in competition like this,” Australia’s Karrie Webb said. “So, it’s not set up like a major, although the course could definitely host a major championship.”
The club did host a women’s leadership event the Tuesday before play began, and the community turned out in droves to see the course and the players. By the end of the week, 40,000 people showed up to cheer for their country, their team, and their favorite LPGA Tour stars. It was more than proof of concept. That inaugural International Crown proved to be one of the most compelling and dramatic events on the calendar.
It also introduced a lot of fans to players they had never seen before, starting with a bashful 17-year-old Aussie who could barely speak in her first press conference.
“So, Minjee, what does it mean to qualify for an international team of this caliber while still an amateur?” Minjee Lee was asked at her pre-tournament press conference.
In a voice so shaky that she had to stop and restart a couple of times, Lee tried to say that it was an honor to be on stage with the likes of Webb, Katherine Kirk and Lindsey Wright, but no complete sentences escaped.
Webb jumped to her rescue, saying, “This girl is a tremendous player who deserves to be here. If people don’t know her, they will soon.”
More prophetic words have rarely been spoken.
Still, how the whole thing would shake out remained a mystery until opening day. That Thursday morning, as the sun peeked over the trees giving the grass a glistening sheen, Team Sweden marched together to the first tee along with a delegate from the Swedish embassy in nearby Washington, D.C. Anna Nordqvist, Caroline Hedwall, Pernilla Lindberg and Mikaela Parmlid took on Team Japan, led by former Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings No.1 Ai Miyazato that morning.
But it wasn’t the matches that gave the event credibility. That came before. After the teams were introduced, a DJ piped in the Swedish national anthem as volunteers hoisted the nation’s flag. Lindberg, who wasn’t well known at the time, but whose infectious smile made her an instant fan favorite that week, stood at attention and sang the first couple of bars.
Then she stopped. Her lower lip quivered. Streams spilled from her blue eyes and down her cheeks. It took a moment for her to steel herself before she could continue singing, which she did at the top of her lungs.
In that instant, everyone knew that this was a big deal.
The U.S. had the biggest crowds, although a surprising number of Thais and Taiwanese came out to support their homelands. The Aussies wore bright yellow and mint green and could be heard four holes away yelling, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oye, oye, oye.”
The golf was compelling all week. And while neither the Koreans nor the Americans – the top two seeds – won, the event exceeded all expectations.
Spain, led by Azahara Muñoz, captured the first International Crown. Belén Mozo secured the winning point, beating Miyazato of Japan 2 and 1 in the final match on the course.
As the week progressed and more and more people flocked to the grounds, claps turned to cheers, and cheers became roars. All questions were answered. The Crown was here to stay. No one could have asked for more.