U.S. players speak out on first day of International Crown week

Finally the biggest event of this Chicago golf season has arrived. The four players on Team U.S. for the second UL International Crown were the first on the course for Tuesday’s practice rounds at the Merit Club and they admitted their task in the eight-team event that tees off on Thursday will be a difficult one.

The U.S. is seeded second to the Republic of Korea, which has all four of its players listed in the top 12 of the Rolex World Rankings. Those rankings determined both the teams and players in the match play event, so Korea would seem a shoo-in to win the title on Sunday.

“It’s a hard format to really predict who’s favored,’’ insisted a still hopeful Cristie Kerr, the veteran member of the U.S. team. “Match play is very unpredictable, but there were a lot of USA fans following us in the practice rounds, and it’s great to be the home team.’’

The U.S. was the top-seeded team in the first Crown event, staged two years ago in Maryland, but didn’t even survive the first three days of best ball competition. Korea, seeded second in 2014, did – by beating the U.S. in a playoff for the fifth and final berth in the concluding singles portion of the competition.

Neither the U.S. nor Korea did well in the first Crown, despite their lofty seedings. Spain and Sweden, countries that didn’t qualify for the second Crown, finished one-two with Korea third.

Both the U.S. and Korea have altered lineups for the second Crown. The U.S. returns Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis and Kerr with Gerina Piller replacing Paula Creamer. Thompson, the top-ranked player in this week’s competition, is No. 4 in the world and only Lewis (8) is also in the top 10.

Korea’s lowest-ranked player, So Yeon Ryu at No. 12, is the only returnee from its team that played in Maryland. Her new teammates are Sei Young Kim (5), Amy Yang (7) and In Gee Chun (9). Inbee Park, ranked No. 3, dropped out with a hand injury.

“What they’re doing is pretty amazing,’’ said Lewis of the Korean contingent. “To have so many players in the top 15 in the world, it’s amazing how well they play. Inbee is out, but the next option is really pretty good.’’

“It’s not a rivalry that we have with them,’’ said Kerr. “We’re just trying to keep up. They have the numbers versus us.’’

At least the U.S. and Korea will understand the unique competitive format better this time. The first three days calls for best ball matches against the teams in their group. The U.S. opens against England on Thursday and also squares off with Thailand on Friday and Japan on Saturday.

Korea faces China first, then has Chinese Taipei on Friday and Australia on Saturday. Teams get two points for a match win and one for a tie, and the top five in the point standings after Saturday go into singles play on Sunday to determine the champion.

“The format was just a little difficult to understand,’’ said Thompson of the first Crown. “I felt like nobody really should have been eliminated.’’

“In this format so many teams are dangerous,’’ said Lewis. “I don’t think you can always go off the rankings in a best ball format. It’s who can make the most birdies in a day.’’

There will be plenty of those, as the Merit Club setup is much different than it was for its only other big event – the 2000 U.S. Women’s Open.

“It’s not even close to what they played for the Open,’’ said Lewis. “There’s reachable par-5s and drivable par-4s and a lot of tee options, so it’s going to make for great golf. You’re going to see a lot of birdies. You’re going to probably see a bunch of eagles on some par-5s. We’re not going to be struggling to make pars, and it’s going to look great on TV.’’

Here and there

The Illinois Women’s Open concludes on Wednesday at Mistwood, in Romeoville, and the Illinois State Amateur wraps up on Thursday at St. Charles Country Club.

Panther Creek, the Springfield course that hosted last year’s Illinois State Amateur, was easy pickings for the Web.com Tour players at their new Lincoln Land Charity Championship. Deerfield’s Vince India posted four rounds in the 60s and could do no better than a tie for 33rd, 10 shots behind champion Martin Flores who posted a 22-under-par 262 total.

Kate Lillie, of St. Charles, was a 3 and 1 winner over Penelope Tir, of Winnetka, in an all-Chicago area final at the Women’s Western Golf Association Junior championship at Blackhawk in Madison, Wis.

Dick Wagley, retired head professional at Indian Hill in Winnetka, was the only player under par at the Illinois PGA Senior Masters on Monday. He shot a 1-under-70.