In alpine skiing, women compete, but that’s about it

Alpine skiing at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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Originally published: February, 14, 2022

When U.S. alpine skier Laurenne Ross contemplated what she wanted to do when she retired, coaching wasn’t initially on the list.

“I was kind of adamant that I wouldn’t fall into a coaching position,” said Ross, who spent a decade racing on the World Cup circuit before retiring last year. “There were a lot of reasons. Primarily the travel and the stress and not being able to be at home…. But also because the culture is pretty harsh and intense and misogynistic.”

Alpine skiing represents something of paradox.

In some ways, the sport is a beacon for gender equity. When it debuted at the Winter Olympics in 1936, and then launched a World Cup circuit in 1967, there were an equal number of men’s and women’s events – a rarity in the sport’s world. That gender parity has mostly held true over the years as both the World Cup and Olympic programs expanded.

And while prize money hasn’t always been equal, these days, female athletes receive near-equal winnings from race organizers on the World Cup circuit. In fact, the sport’s prize money list has been topped by a woman the last five seasons – something that the sport’s governing body loves to point out. American Mikaela Shiffrin held the title of highest earner for four straight years (2017-2020), while Swiss skier Lara Gut-Behrami took home the most winnings in 2021.

“In ski racing, we are very lucky as female athletes to experience the kind of gender equity that we do,” Ross said. “But if you look a little bit closer, you do see those discrepancies.”

You can count the number of female alpine skiing coaches on one hand (but no one is counting)

The most noticeable gender disparity in alpine skiing exists in the coaching ranks.

The U.S. ski team includes one of only a handful of female coaches: Karin Harjo, who works with the women’s speed team.

In 2016, Harjo became the first woman to set a World Cup slalom course. (And to be clear: she was the first woman to accomplish this in women’s skiing.)

“It’s been really cool to see how she handles herself in an extremely male-dominated environment,” said Alice Merryweather, a current member of the U.S. ski team who was taken out of Olympic contention after a serious crash last September. “She’s very well respected by all of the male coaches out there – which is everyone else. I think we’re really lucky to have her.”

“I loved working with Karin,” said Alice McKennis Duran, who retired from the U.S. ski team at the end of last season. “She was one of my favorite coaches ever, and certainly part of that was her being a female.”

It’s unclear exactly how many women coach on the World Cup circuit. In addition to Harjo, Norway has one woman on its coaching roster (Pernille Lindman). There’s also Eileen Shiffrin, the mother of Mikaela Shiffrin, who has coached and travelled with her daughter since she made her World Cup debut.

Beyond that, Merryweather drew a blank. “The fact I’m having a hard time says something.”

A representative for FIS – the international federation that oversees alpine skiing – said that there are “about 6/7” women coaching on the World Cup circuit, but the organization wouldn’t provide a full coaching roster – citing “privacy.” The organization also couldn’t provide a total number of coaches on the World Cup circuit, noting “it is a variable number depending on the budgets of the federations and the number of their employees.”

Needless to say, the number of women coaching is not large.

Alpine skiing is not alone in failing to hire and retain female coaches. Across the board, as women’s sports have become more popular – and profitable – the number of men in coaching roles has skyrocketed while the number of women has dwindled. For example, this year’s women’s Olympic hockey tournament includes a record 10 teams. But it will also be the first Olympic tournament in which there are zero female head coaches.

While broken coaching pipelines often carry blame in sports like soccer and hockey, skiing has a more complicated problem, one the sport hasn’t quite acknowledged, let alone start to solve.

Like Ross, McKennis Duran didn’t see herself coaching when she retired from skiing last spring. And yet, this winter, she can be found at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, helping young athletes learn the ropes.

But as she looks ahead to the future, even her current job coaching 10- and 11-year-olds doesn’t feel sustainable when she considers her family planning goals.

“It’s unfathomable,” McKennis Duran said. “I already work six days a week right now in the winter. Like, I’m not doing that and having kids. Part of me is like, ‘I’ll probably have to quit.'”

If her current job isn’t feasible, forget coaching at the World Cup level, where coaches spend upwards of six months on the road each year.

“If you want to have a family, and work on the World Cup, it’s going to be pretty much impossible – unless you want to leave your children at home.”

Many men have done just that.

“A lot of my male coaches have families and I’ve never met their kids,” McKennis Duran said. “It’s actually kind of sad.”

While some U.S. ski clubs are working to retain female coaches, McKennis Duran believes that ski culture needs a more seismic shift.

“Working with [women] to help them stay in the sport is really important because we’re just going to keep losing women, over and over and over again,” she said. “Something that needs to be recognized is that women are valuable in the sport.”

Alpine skiing’s horizontal cousin, cross-country skiing, has encountered this issue, too. The two sports have similarly demanding World Cup schedules that keep athletes and staff on the road for most of the year.

“Definitely still not that many female coaches,” said 2018 Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall, who is serving as a cross-country skiing analyst for NBC Olympics during the 2022 Winter Olympics. “And the higher up you go, the thinner that [number] gets.”

But while Randall would like to see the number of women increase, she’s not ready to step into the role herself, at least not yet.

“I love the act of coaching, but the lifestyle is so demanding, especially with a young child,” she said.  “I spent a lot of my life away [from home] and I’m not going to do that now with a family.”

What happens when women aren’t making decisions about women’s skiing?

In addition to the very unbalanced coaching landscape, there is also the fact that on both the men’s and women’s World Cup circuits, every person making decisions on behalf of FIS is a man.

During Lindsey Vonn‘s storied career, she fought to be allowed to enter a race against men – a request that FIS denied multiple times. When FIS ruled against Vonn in 2012, the organization’s Secretary General Sarah Lewis told reporters, “It’s called the men’s World Cup and the ladies’ World Cup. The men race the men’s World Cup and the ladies race the ladies’ World Cup.”

Ten years later, that statement highlights one change FIS finally, thankfully, made. Last year, as the result of an IOC gender equity review, the federation began using the word “women’s” in place of “ladies’.” But the gender divide remains, including in the way men’s and women’s events are organized.

Merryweather believes the lack of female representation in the sport has resulted in the women’s courses – especially those used for speed events – being watered down.

“It seems like they have completely different ideas of what downhill for men looks like compared to downhill for women,” she said. “They’ll shave all of our jumps down, they’ll end races early if a jump is too big.”

For the record, Merryweather isn’t pitching the idea of women skiing Kitzbuehel, the notorious and dangerous race on the men’s World Cup circuit.

“I have no interest in throwing myself down Kitzbuehel,” she said. “But I think there’s this weird conversation that the men’s courses have to be more difficult than the women’s.”

For Merryweather, the issue isn’t which slopes are safe and which ones aren’t, but who is making those decisions.

“Having some more female representation in there would help a lot,” she said. “Right now, it’s a lot of white guys being like, ‘No these women can’t ski that jump because it’s too big for them’ and they don’t actually know what our experience is.”

This gender imbalance also extends to more niche areas of the industry, from equipment suppliers to ski manufacturers to the people managing sponsorships.

“As an athlete, I never encountered [a woman], other than, like, the woman that works in the office and helps you get your new luggage,” said McKennis Duran. “It was always dominated by men, whether you were dealing with contracts or anything to do with organization of the races.”

“There are clearly certain roles that have always been assigned to certain genders,” Merryweather said.

Team physios, for example? Almost always women.

Ski servicemen?

“There’s a reason why they’re called servicemen – it’s because they’re always men,” McKennis Duran quipped.

“You see that huge gender divide and it’s one of those things that you become accustomed to and almost blind to it,” McKennis Duran said. “It’s just the way it is.”

The “equal” prize money in alpine skiing? It’s not actually equal

Perhaps part of the reason gender disparities in alpine skiing are easy to ignore is because it is one of the rare sports in which prize money is equal for men and women.

Well, not exactly.

The sport has equal “minimum” prize money, but some races offer bonus money, most of which is allocated to men.

Still, the mostly-equal prize money conceals a much larger wage disparity.

“Our main income is through contracts” with sponsors, Ross explained.

“As an athlete ranked tenth in the world, being a female is a lot more difficult than being a male that’s ranked tenth in the world. You’re making a lot less money.”

Early in her career, Ross discovered that her ski sponsor was paying her half as much as a male athlete with a lower World Cup ranking.

But just because she knew she was being paid less didn’t mean she was able to do anything about it.

“You can’t raise the issue,” Ross said. “You are contractually obliged to not talk about your contracts.”

“Contracts between the men’s and women’s side, it doesn’t matter what type of gear we’re talking, the men’s [contract] is better than the women’s,” said Paula Moltzan, a U.S. tech specialist who made her Olympic debut in Beijing.

As for whether there are any protections for female athletes who want to have children and want continue ski racing? The type of protections Allyson Felix fought for when she gave birth?

“Absolutely not,” Ross said.

Alpine skiing’s gender paradox: Just because it’s better doesn’t make it ok

In the landscape of women’s sports, it is uncommon to find a sport like alpine skiing, where women are so visible in the sport but so invisible in decision making.

“As a female alpine skier, I feel like I do a female sport in a still male-dominated environment,” said Merryweather. “It doesn’t feel like it’s changing much.”

“It is not equal, but it is so much better than other sports,” said Ross. “But just because it’s better than other sports doesn’t make it ok. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent.”

That’s one of the reasons that – despite her initial opposition to the idea – you can now find Ross on the slopes her local mountain in Bend, Oregon, coaching 14- and 15-year-olds.

“The further along I got in my career, I realized I could make a difference. I wanted to at least try it and dip my toes in and see what it felt like.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

March 31, 2022 Update: Alpine Canada has hired Karin Harjo as the head coach of its women’s alpine skiing team, making Harjo the only woman to currently lead a national ski team on the World Cup stage. (Read more about Harjo’s hiring here.)

Li Li Leung talks USA Gymnastics’ cultural transformation, challenges still to come and embracing her AAPI heritage

Head of USA Gymnastics Li Li Leung.
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Li Li Leung joined USA Gymnastics as president and CEO in March 2019, when the organization was reeling from the fallout of Larry Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse and the subsequent revelations of larger cultural issues within the sport. Since then, Leung has seen USAG through an ongoing transformation, one that hinges on the work of the survivors and staff around her, whom she is quick to credit. That evolution, as she calls it, has included instituting new norms and standards at all levels of the sport, particularly in matters related to athlete safety.

Among the notable USAG initiatives that Leung has brought to fruition is the Athlete Bill of Rights, established in December 2020 as a tool “to unite the full gymnastics community around a shared vision of behavioral expectations.” At the same time, USAG instituted a protest policy for national team members aimed at supporting athletes who choose to use their voice on public platforms. Both initiatives were among the first of their kind in sport.

Prior to joining USAG, Leung served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building and managing key partner relationships around the world. She continues to use that experience in her roles as vice chair of the National Governing Bodies Council of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s Executive Committee.

Leung, who began competing in gymnastics at age 7, was a member of the U.S. junior national training team and represented the U.S. at the 1988 Junior Pan American Games. She was a four-year member of the four-time Big 10 champion University of Michigan gymnastics team and was an NCAA Championships participant.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, On Her Turf sat down with Leung to talk about her journey with USAG, the challenges still to come and how being a member of the AAPI community has shaped the person she is today.

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This Q+A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Let’s start by talking about your journey since joining USA Gymnastics in 2019. What have the last four years been like for you?

Li Li Leung: This was just an incredible opportunity to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. And I really mean that because I started in the sport when I was 7 years old and did it for 15 years. It’s taught me all of these different skills that I apply to my daily life, both professional and personal. It feels a little bit like I’ve come full circle, and honestly, never in a million years did I think I would find myself in this role. … I joined at a time when it was a tumultuous time for the organization. It’s been just a little a little over four years now, and it has been an incredible journey — and believe it or not, I have enjoyed it. While it hasn’t been easy, I actually have enjoyed it, because I’ve been able to make it not just me. One thing that’s important to note is that — I had even said on my first interview with the board — it will take a village to accomplish what we need to accomplish. This is not a one-person job. And I was lucky enough to be able to bring on a leadership team that has been incredible, and also retain the staff that we have retained, as well as hire other new staff members. And it’s because of them and some really key volunteers that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do.

OHT: Can you talk a little more about this cultural transformation that the organization has experienced and your approach to tackling this all-encompassing change?

Leung: When I was interviewing for the position, I actually met every single board member. It was really critical to both sides that they felt that I matched the role and their needs and also I had to be confident in the board believing in the ultimate mission of the organization and what we wanted to achieve. So that the culture really does stem from the well – from the top down and everything in between as well. And when I was looking for leadership team, … one of the characteristics I was really looking for was they couldn’t have an ego. The job couldn’t be about themselves or about what they would personally get out of the role. It had to be about them believing in the bigger picture and believing in what we collectively wanted to achieve. I knew that we would only be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish if people were willing to roll up their sleeves and just do whatever needed to be done, so that was one of the key things in terms of having no ego.

Since 2018, we’ve turned over more than 70 percent of our staff. We’ve been able to retain the really key members of our staff, who have been critical to our success, but also have been able to really bring in new thinking, new blood, new perspectives. Because the other thing I was looking for when I was hiring for the leadership team was diversity in perspectives. That was critical because I did not want to be surrounded by “yes people.” I wanted to be surrounded by people who would be willing to have really robust conversations and engage in difficult conversations, because ultimately, you end up in a better place because of that.

In 2020, we reset our mission to be about building a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, with athletes who thrive in sport and in life. So we were no longer about developing technically superior gymnasts who perform well in gym. We reset our focus to be about helping set our athletes up for success with the skill sets that you learn in gymnastics, and when we come to the office each day, that’s what we’re thinking about. …

The other piece is we also know from a community standpoint that our national team coaches are the most visible representation (of USAG), and a lot of coaches model them. So we’ve been working really hard in terms of working on educating our national team coaches. We work with Positive Coaching Alliance to do educational training with them as well. And we also have introduced training specifically for young coaches coming in, because we know when they come in and they’re new, that they’re eager to learn, and that’s when you can start training and moving them in a way. So our thinking is with this top-down and bottom-up strategy, eventually the middle will meet.

OHT: You noted how the coaches can be some of the most visible representatives of USAG. Regarding the addition of 2008 Olympic silver medalists Chellsie Memmel (USAG technical lead) and Alicia Sacramone Quinn (USAG strategic lead), how have those women impacted the program?

Leung: The addition of Chellsie and Alicia has been fantastic. They have been phenomenal to work with, and the fact that they have firsthand experience of having gone through it themselves – that also gives them a very good idea of what they would change and what they wouldn’t change, at the same time. It has been a phenomenal addition to be able to have this perspective of firsthand, high-level, high-performing athletes to be able to lead our high-performance team. And the athletes are saying it as well. They’re saying, “We trust them; we feel confident in their decisions; we can relate to them” — all of those things that historically haven’t really happened before.

Then in terms of the athletes who are going to college and coming back to compete with USA Gymnastics – there are so many aspects that I think are great about this. One: It’s showing a lengthened career in a sport that historically has not been very long because it’s so demanding on the body. So that means that our athletes are physically healthier, as well, that they can train and compete at a high level for a longer period of time. It also means that they’re enjoying it more because they’re staying in the sport. From an emotional standpoint, they’re finding a lot more joy in the sport, and they’re talking about it, too. And we love the fact that they’re talking about it. We want them to talk about it, and we want them to have voices and feel open and free about sharing what they’re thinking about. I have to say I’ve been really enjoying seeing almost like — I’m not sure if I can go as far as a new era in the sport maybe — but just this evolution of the sport and the athletes changing in front of my eyes.

OHT: What do you consider now to still be the biggest challenge or obstacle for USAG?

Leung: There are a couple of big initiatives on the list. One is we want to build a training and wellness center where all of our disciplines will train under one roof. This is a long-term project, obviously, but my vision around it is that it will be the heart and hub of gymnastics in America. And while this is where national team athletes will ultimately train to some extent, it is going to be a welcoming place for athletes of all different disciplines and all different levels. We want it to be a place where young athletes can come through and see their role models training. We want this to be a place of education for our community and judges. We want to be able to run clinics there for all different levels. We just want this to be a gathering place of gymnastics and to be able to celebrate the sport there at the same time.

We’re also going to reset our foundation. There’s been the National Gymnastics Foundation, but we are going to reset it and basically be much more proactive on fundraising and development to grow the sport and also to raise more money for athletes in their training.

OHT: Turning to AAPI Heritage Month and being named to the 2023 Gold House A100 List (the A100 is named each May honoring 100 Asian Pacific leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year). What did that honor mean to you?

Leung: It was such an incredible honor to be recognized by them, and my fellow honorees — when I read the list, I thought to myself, “I don’t belong.” There are some incredible names on that list. But again, I go back to what I said earlier: I owe this honor to a lot of the other people who work [at USAG]. I think the really important thing to recognize is that this was not done by just me. It was done by a lot of other people who are on staff and who aren’t getting the accolades or the recognition. But it was an incredible experience to be, and I’m very, very touched and honored to be on that list.

OHT: How do you identify within the Asian American Pacific Islander community? Did you embrace your heritage growing up and how has that shaped who you are today?

Leung: So I’ll tell you a story that I’ve mentioned to other people recently. I grew up in a town called Ridgewood in Bergen County, New Jersey, and most of my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. When I was growing up, I wanted the name “Nancy Smith,” and I wanted blue eyes. I wanted to fit in. As a kid, you always want to fit in. Then when you get older and wizen up a little bit, you realize that it’s okay and it’s good to be different, that you can use that to your advantage. And so upon growing up, I realized that it’s pretty special to be Asian American and there are benefits to being Asian American, and you should embrace the fact that you are different. In fact, I recently lectured to a women-in-sports-business class, and one of the questions they asked me was about impostor syndrome. I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now, which is absolutely embrace who you are. Absolutely embrace your differences, because those ultimately are embedded advantages to who you are and make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. So that’s my philosophy now.

OHT: Do you or your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Leung: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a tradition, but in the Chinese culture, food is really important. Food is what brings people together. It’s a sign of respect, and that is the ultimate unifying language in a way. So when we do get together as a family, it’s really important for us to get together around a meal, because that’s when we share our stories. That’s when we connect with one another.

OHT: You might have just answered my next question, but I want to ask: What brings you joy about your heritage and culture?

Leung: It’s funny, I was actually at a conference last week and you were supposed to find someone you didn’t know in the conference and share a secret talent that you have. I shared that I can eat a lot more than most people think. Food is a really important part of our culture and in my upbringing and family.

OHT: Lastly, I wanted to ask, as we’ve seen an increase in hate-filled actions toward the AAPI community, what does supporting the AAPI community look like for you?

Leung: Well, I think kind of going back to my other answer, it’s just about embracing who you are and embracing your differences. I think part of it is being unafraid of it at the same time, which I know is really difficult. But if you’re going to truly embrace it, and then you can’t be afraid about embracing it at the same time.

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2023 Mizuho Americas Open: How to watch, who’s playing in inaugural LPGA event at Liberty National GC

Pajaree Anannarukarn of Thailand tees off on the eleventh hole during Day One of the HSBC Women's World Championship.
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The Statue of Liberty is the backdrop for this week’s inaugural Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The tournament boasts a theme of mentorship and education, and includes a girls’ 72-hole, modified Stableford tournament featuring 24 juniors to go along with the 72-hole stroke-play event for 120 LPGA professionals.

The field is led by seven of the top 10 players on the Rolex Rankings including world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Lydia Ko, No. 4 Lilia Vu and No. 5 Minjee Lee. Also teeing it up this week are the finalists from Sunday’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play, where Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn captured her second LPGA title with a 3-and-1 victory over Japan’s Ayaka Furue.

Michelle Wie West is serving as the tournament host, and she’ll be on hand to welcome fellow Stanford alum Rose Zhang, who’s fresh off her second straight NCAA individual title and turned professional just last week. Zhang will have her first go at an LPGA prize purse, which tops out at $2.75 million this week with the winner taking home $412,500.

How to watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open

You can watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, June 1: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Friday, June 2: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Saturday, June 3: 5-8 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Sunday, June 4: 4:30-5 p.m. ET (streaming only on Peacock); 5-7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock

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Who’s playing in the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open?

The 120-player field features seven of the top 10 players (and 16 of the top 25 player) on the Rolex Rankings:

  • No. 1 Jin Young Ko
  • No. 3 Lydia Ko
  • No. 4 Lilia Vu
  • No. 5 Minjee Lee
  • No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 8 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 9 Georgia Hall

Also in the field are 2023 winners Celine Boutier (LPGA Drive On Championship), Ruoning Yin (DIO Implant LA Open) and Grace Kim (LOTTE Championship), plus several sponsor exemptions including reigning NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang and her Stanford teammate Megha Ganne. Ganne, a native of Holmdel, N.J., finished T-21 at the recent NCAAs and is playing as an amateur. Joining them as an exemption is fellow Cardinal Mariah Stackhouse, who has conditional status on tour in 2023. Monday qualifiers include tour rookie Alexa Pano and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith.

Among the notable juniors expected to play are 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur winner Anna Davis, 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner Yana Wilson and 2022 U.S. Junior Girls’ runnerup Gianna Clemente. The 24 junior players were invited through their standings in the Rolex AJGA Rankings.

What’s the format for the Mizuho Americas Open?

The professionals will play a 72-hole stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 50 and ties after 36 holes. The 24 juniors will play a 72-hole, no-cut competition using the modified Stableford scoring format and a different yardage than the pros.

During the first two rounds, the AJGA players will all be paired together. During the final two rounds, one junior player will play with two LPGA pros with groupings based on scores. This unique format marks the first time the AJGA and LPGA have partnered to showcase junior and professional competitors playing together.

Stableford scoring refresher: “Stableford” is a scoring system that awards points for the number of strokes taken on each hole in relation to par, rather than simply counting strokes like in stroke play. Unlike in stroke play, where players want the lowest score, the goal in Stableford scoring is to have the highest score. Standard Stableford points values are:

  • 0 Points – Double bogey or worse (two strokes or more over par)
  • 1 Point – Bogey (one stroke over par)
  • 2 Points – Par
  • 3 Points – Birdie (one stroke under par)
  • 4 Points – Eagle (two strokes under par)
  • 5 Points – Albatross or double eagle (three strokes under par)
  • 6 Points – Condor (four strokes under par)

More about Liberty National Golf Club

Located on the shore of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, Liberty National Golf Club was designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite and officially opened on July 4, 2006. After the course received mixed reviews following the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust in 2009, the course underwent a renovation led by Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services. Of note, the course hosted an event during the PGA Tour Playoffs four times (2009, 2013, 2019 and 2021) as well as the 2017 Presidents Cup, where the U.S. defeated the Internationals 19-11 for the Americans’ seventh consecutive victory in the competition and its 10th straight win overall. For this week’s event, the course will play to a par of 72 with an unofficial scorecard yardage of 6,671 yards.

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