LPGA has young star Rose Zhang and great golf. So why is women's tour stagnating?

This is arguably the best time to be in the business of women’s sports.

The World Cup beginning later this month in Australia and New Zealand is going to smash records for ticket sales and television ratings. The WTA recently announced an initiative to reach equal prize money with the men’s tennis tour by 2027, a standard that has already been in place at the Grand Slams for several years.

The Women’s Final Four and Women’s College World Series are showing positive viewership trends, and the NCAA is poised to cash in when their television rights come up for renewal. Athletes in those sports and more have become big stars, with some generating six-figure marketing deals.

Professional team sports are also undergoing a transformation. The Seattle Storm recently sold a 14 percent stake at a $151 million valuation, setting a new benchmark for the WNBA. At the halfway mark of its season, the NWSL posted increases of roughly 50 percent from last year both in attendance and streaming viewers.

So there’s no longer a debate about where women’s sports fit into the landscape. With the right investment and marketing, they aren’t just a niche; there’s real mainstream appeal.

Which makes it all the more confusing and troubling that the LPGA seems like it has stagnated at best and is getting left behind at worst at the very moment it should be taking off like a rocket.

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This week, the U.S. Women’s Open will be held at Pebble Beach for the first time in tournament history, offering the biggest prize in women’s golf projected at around $10 million with roughly $1.8 million going to last year’s winner. On Saturday and Sunday, NBC will devote primetime coverage to a women’s major for the first time.

And the star of the show is going to be Rose Zhang, a 20-year-old from Southern California who turned pro in May after 141 weeks as the world’s No. 1 amateur and promptly won her first start on the LPGA Tour. Oh, and she also happens to own the women’s course record at Pebble, shooting 63 a couple years ago while playing for Stanford.

If there were ever a time for the stars to align in women’s golf, this is it. But is the infrastructure in place to capitalize on the moment?

Rose Zhang reacts after completing the 18th hole during the final round of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.
Rose Zhang reacts after completing the 18th hole during the final round of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.

It would be incredibly unfair, of course, to place the entire burden of the sport on the shoulders of a young woman who was in college a few months ago. Zhang could very well be in contention on Sunday, but there's a good chance she won’t be. That's the nature of the sport.

But just a couple weeks ago, she was very much in the mix at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, mounting a Sunday charge at Baltusrol Golf Club that almost saw her win a major in just her second tournament as a pro.

I was glued to the television for the final round. It was among the most compelling golf I’ve seen this year as another 20-year-old phenom, China’s Ruoning Yin, took the title. But on social media, it didn’t seem like any of it was breaking through − a sense that was confirmed by a mediocre television number (658,000 viewers) that was actually lower than last year.

If the LPGA and NBC can’t sell a charismatic American superstar trying to win a major fresh out of college on one of America’s most well-known and historic golf courses, it’s not a great sign for the overall health of the tour.

I’m not here to tell anyone what to watch on a Sunday afternoon, but from where I sit − more as a fan than a journalist on this topic − women’s golf has long been one of the most undervalued properties in sports.

Are we ever going to get to the point where a U.S. Women’s Open final round out-rates a men’s U.S. Open like we often see in a tennis Grand Slam final? Probably not.

But unlike the men’s game, where technology and power have simply overwhelmed most golf courses, the LPGA offers spectacular shot-making with a variety of clubs and spins and strategies for attacking holes that go beyond bashing it as far as possible with a driver.

If you like golf, why wouldn’t you like watching that?

With Zhang’s arrival, it’s time for the big stakeholders in golf to embrace the LPGA like a serious opportunity to broaden the entire sport’s fan base. That takes financial investment, and it takes passion − neither of which are being shown at an acceptable level to meet this moment.

Sure, the USGA is committing at least $10 million to the Women’s Open purse. It’s still half of what the men make. The same goes for the R&A ($7.3 million to $14 million) and the PGA of America, which has more than doubled its prize money from a few years ago to $10 million but still falls short of the $17.5 million going to the men.

Save the excuses about the women’s game not selling as many tickets or not having as many fans as the men and instead ask yourself why that is when a comparable sport like tennis has found a way to sell the women’s game at an extremely high level.

Are you holding tournaments just to hold tournaments, or are you "growing the game," which is the catch phrase you’ve heard plenty over the last year to justify all kinds of morally problematic behavior? Maybe, just maybe, if these organizations invested more, they’d actually put some pressure on themselves to help market the sport.

Speaking of which, in 2014 the USGA made the bold move to stage the Women’s Open at Pinehurst one week after the men played the same course, which meant a full week of promoting it. Surprise, surprise: Television ratings went up 92 percent from the year before.

Nobody is denying that there are challenges. It’s a touchy subject, but the volume of excellent South Korean players coming onto the tour over the last 20 years − some of whom don’t speak much English or aren’t comfortable communicating in it − has presented some barriers for American audiences.

However, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko speaks excellent English and is a delightful personality. The current top-10 of the LPGA season-long race includes two Americans, a Canadian, an Australian, a New Zealander and an Irish woman in addition to two Koreans along with women from Thailand and China − in other words, a tour that looks like the golf-playing world.

Meanwhile, when healthy, Olympic gold medalist Nelly Korda could be the face of the game. Megan Khang, whose parents came to the U.S. as Vietnam War refugees from Laos, has one of the best backstories in all of sports.

If you can’t sell that − especially in a sport that needs more women playing and watching after decades of acting like an Old Boys Club − then you don’t have much imagination for what’s possible.

All around us, we’re seeing other sports figure out how to do it. With Rose Zhang as the LPGA’s fresh-faced superstar, another window of opportunity has opened. Will golf finally walk through it?

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LPGA has star Rose Zhang, great golf. Why is women's tour stagnating?