Could Thompson be the one who leads Americans back to LPGA prominence?

December 26, 2016, 11:31 AM

— -- Coming off a 2016 season that saw two of its top players Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn combine for eight victories, including two majors, what's next for the LPGA Tour in the year ahead?

And can American players get back on the winning track?

Our panel sifts through those questions and more in this week's edition of Monday Four-Ball.

1. Which American has the best chance to win a major in 2017? senior golf writer Michael Collins: Lexi Thompson. She was the only American in the top 10 in scoring average in 2016, finishing 10th. She has the length off the tee to accompany a solid iron game. As with most golfers, putting is her Achilles heel. senior golf writer Bob Harig: Lexi Thompson. It seems she should contend in all of them and certainly has the ability and talent to do so. senior golf editor Kevin Maguire: Stacy Lewis. Yes, she has been runner-up 75 times since her last victory anywhere in the world (only slightly exaggerating that one) but the two-time major winner didn't forget how to win. One of these days the breaks are going to fall her way and Lewis will be on the receiving end of a major title in 2017. senior golf writer Jason Sobel: I'm not sure Gerina Piller has the kind of superstar potential to hang with the Ariya Jutanugarns and Lydia Kos of the tour, but I do think she's overdue for a win and her first one could come in a big way. Piller finished in the top 25 in 64 percent of her tournament starts this past year, including four of the five majors. It wouldn't surprise me to see her win the ANA Inspiration, where she's coming off a T-6 result.

2. How does Lydia Ko "fix" whatever is going on in her game?

Collins: She's already fixed it, by getting away from David Leadbetter. I expect, once she names a full-time caddie, she'll have a four win year in 2017 that will include a major.

Harig: By not fixing anything. With all of her success at such a young age, why feel the need to make so many changes? Caddie. Coach. Equipment. It's puzzling. Ko has already achieved so much. It is better to stick with what has worked and make minor tweaks along the way.

Maguire: The New Zealander still won four times in 2016 and very nearly took home all the top honors on the LPGA Tour, yet made a slew of changes from coach to caddie to equipment. The fix for Ko hopefully isn't any more very-public tweaks, but staying with status quo, which would be a change unto itself after her second half of 2016. Easier said than done, of course, but she'll be under the microscope from her first start of the season.

Sobel: I wouldn't suggest that Michelle Wie ever reached the level of Ko, nor have they taken the same journey, but the latter might be wise to chat up her friend and ask for advice on what went right and what went wrong for her over the past half-decade or so. That said, it's a bit ridiculous that we're even talking about some regression for Ko. She won so much at such a young age that any regression is going to be viewed as the sky is falling. Well, it's not. She's still a world-class player.

3. What's the biggest issue facing the LPGA in the coming year?

Collins: How does the LPGA become relevant in the U.S. again without an American superstar? While the LPGA might be thriving overseas, when I speak to my golf fan friends, they roll their eyes when I bring up the LPGA Tour.

Harig: The same as it has always been -- finding relevancy in a big sports landscape. Golf is a niche sport, and women's golf is niche within the niche. Finding ways to be different, to bring attention, is always the struggle.

Maguire: U.S. women need to start winning. This isn't just red, white and blue cheering. For such an international tour, wins from the country where it's based would go a long way, ideally early in the season. A major or two wouldn't hurt, either. American female golfers produced all of two victories in 2016, and although it was an amazing year by all accounts for the LPGA Tour, the lack of U.S. titles felt like something was missing at year's end.

Sobel: The tour does a terrific job of reaching its diehard supporters on a weekly basis, but too often has difficulties marketing to a wider mainstream audience. I don't have the answer to fix it, other than the ol' "thinking outside-the-box" clich?. More tourneys in prime time, more tourneys on network television and more opportunities for the biggest stars to show off their personalities off the golf course, too.

4. Which LPGA Tour event are you most looking forward to next year?

Collins: I always look forward to the U.S. Women's Open every year and will again this year. I love the golf fans in the New York/New Jersey area because of their passion and boisterousness, which will be on full display.

Harig: The Ricoh Women's British Open. It is being played at Kingsbarns, just up the road from St. Andrews. Terrific views and an excellent venue.

Maguire: Easiest question of the bunch. The U.S. Women's Open at Trump National Bedminster in July. The sad part is, the first $5 million purse in women's golf history is going to get completely overshadowed by the owner of the course.

Sobel: The 2017 U.S. Women's Open will be held at Trump National GC in Bedminster, New Jersey -- and you don't have to be a golf nut to understand how much of a hot-button issue it is to bring a women's major to a Trump-owned golf course. Will players speak out against the decision to keep it there? Will the president-elect be in attendance? This one has all the markings of becoming a three-ring circus -- oh, and one the year's toughest setup, as well.

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