For Womens Golf All That Glitters is Not a Gold Medal


My wife, an avid golfer but a selective sports watcher, couldnt say enough fast enough Friday morning to keep up with her excitement about Sarah Hughes come-from-behind win in Olympic figure skating.
This may not seem like a big deal. But for my better half to get pumped up about any sports story not involving Joe Paterno is a press-stopping occasion at our house. As a golfer, she admires the accomplishments of Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, and their colleagues. My wife once met Pat Bradley at a golf clinic and talked about it for weeks.
But the morning after Annika shot 59, I didnt hear anything like the praises she had for Thursdays skating spectacle.
Assuming for the sake of the argument that women such as my wife are an important constituency for womens professional golf, the natural question is: Cant the LPGA catch a break?
The answer seems to be no. And in the long run, that might not be such a bad thing.
To those who know the LPGA to be a league full of fine people and excellent athletes, it didnt seem fair when Mia Hamm and the U.S. Womens Soccer team could generate more excitement in a few months than the LPGA could in a year. Apply the same reasoning to what Hughes and Michelle Kwan did in one night, and the scales of injustice tip even farther askew.
In a conversation after the soccer win, LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw admitted to me that hed love for his league to capitalize on the increased interest in womens sports. The secret, we agreed, was how that could be done, not just for golf, but for any womens sport. I imagine Votaw would be just as enthusiastic about whatever heat the golf equivalent of the Hughes-Kwan phenomenon could give off.

But I think the LPGA would be better off being careful what it wishes for.
Like gymnastics (and to some extent, tennis), womens skating is taking on something of a pixie sport reputation. There may be exceptions, but the overwhelming perception is that you have to be a child, and a small one, to succeed at the highest level. (Hughes is 16. Kwan is 21. Look what happened. And Kwan is seriously considering retirement just about the time she can legally order a drink.)
Golf, on the other hand, rewards experience at its highest level. Sure, the natural strength and flexibility of youth are assets. But experience is an undeniable virtue, especially where major championships are concerned. And no matter what criticisms you can collect about the LPGA (detractors say its just not a viable marketing opportunity in the universe of sports choices), golf has never suffered from the credibility doubts gymnastics endures. The subjective scoring is bad enough, but how can it be a real sport if the leaders are still in junior high school?
More troubling, though, is the argument about the LPGA that just wont go away. Its embarrassing for golf that Laura Diaz can get as much press for her attractiveness as for her golf swing. Its problematic at best that even within the golf world, many serious thinkers believe the LPGAs situation to be so desperate that it should start selling sex appeal, as one of my colleagues put it. Get another Jan Stephenson, he said.
Great. And Anna Kournikova has done so much for tenniss credibility, right?
At its core, golf is a meritocracy in which only the number of strokes matters in determining who is best. In the marketing-mad sports world, in the week that saw the Hughes-Kwan ratings spike and the release of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue within days of each other, it may not be good business to run a womens golf league in which some of the best players dont fit a modern American feminine archetype, or dont peak as teenagers, or dont wear diaphanous costumes with short skirts.
But I hope golfs No. 1 womens league says, So be it. Play on and play well, with the integrity youve already shown.
And the audience that will come, will come.