May 27, 2003
Women athletes rarely make headlines in the sports world. That's why the response to Annika Sorenstam's appearance on the PGA Tour at the Colonial tournament has been such an eye-opener.
As soon as Annika received an invitation to participate in this year's Colonial tournament, reaction began to flow from every corner.
Many PGA Tour members said they'd welcome Sorenstam to the links, but a few notable exceptions, including former Master's champion Vijay Singh and Colonial's defending champion Nick Price, expressed dismay. Price said that Annika's participation "reeks of publicity," and he wondered why she had to go and pick Colonial for her PGA debut. "She had, what, 41 other tournaments she could have chosen," Price told reporters, failing to note that Colonial's sponsors invited Sorenstam to play, not the other way around.
Singh's criticism was even more unbridled. "She doesn't belong out here," he said. "What is she going to prove by playing? It's ridiculous. She's the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasize woman. We have our tour for men, and they have their tour. She's taking a spot from someone in the field." Singh didn't mention that sponsor's invitations frequently go out to other non-Tour members, including senior players or male collegiate golfers.
Sorenstam looked anything but ridiculous on the first day of tournament play at Colonial. Not only did she endure a unimaginable crush of media scrutiny for the weeks and days leading up to the tournament, but with the eyes of history and the world squarely fixed on her every move, she played better than even the Las Vegas odds-makers expected. She shot a first round 1-over-par 71, and hit more fairways than the majority of her competitors.
Sorenstam struggled on the second day and missed the cut by four strokes, but her score was still better than Tour veterans Bob Estes, Kevin Sutherland, Craig Perks, Scott McCarron, 1996 PGA Champion Mark Brooks and six other Tour players.
Critics weren't done with Annika yet, however. Some labeled her a failure because she didn't make the cut, and that (supposedly) proved that women can't compete on the same level as men. Cynics said she did it all for self-serving reasons and to benefit her sponsors.
But anyone who questioned whether or not these events have a large social significance had only to look at the reaction in the press and the populace to find the answer. More media attention was focused on Annika's two days at Colonial than almost any sporting event since the days of the Battle of the Sexes in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
The differences between those two events, 30 years apart, are greater than the similarities, but the bottom line is the same: Any time a woman attempts to enter a male-dominated arena or questions the notion of male superiority, it stirs up fear and resentment. In the world of sports, in particular, the idea of losing to a woman in a competitive area is viewed as the ultimate sign of weakness. If you don't believe me, just ask CBS golf commentator David Feherty. "The reason it's such an enormous event is largely due to the reaction of the men." Feherty told Golf Online. "If they (had) said, 'Hey, that's cool, c'mon, give it a try, let's see if you can play,' it'd be half the size."
Will the PGA Tour vote to bar women from competition or, perhaps, change its name to the MPGA, the Men's Professional Golf Association? Will more invitations be extended to top women players like Annika, and will young women, inspired by Annika's performance, eventually begin to try to qualify for and play on the men's tour in larger numbers? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, Dave Anderson, longtime golf writer for the New York Times, has offered an intriguing suggestion: an annual Mixed Open event sponsored by the United States Golf Association, where male and female pros would compete together. "Imagine the excitement of, say, Sorenstam's coming down the last few holes on Sunday in a duel with, say, Phil Mickelson," Anderson writes. "Imagine the interest in a woman beating a man for the same title and the same prize money on the same course in the same tournament."
Why not? What would chauvinists like Vijay Singh have to lose except their notions about the inferiority of women?