Annika's big adventure

Posted: May 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Annika Sorenstam, who dominates the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), became the first female golfer to play in a Professional Golf Association (PGA) event in 58 years.

She finished her first day one over par, but did not make the 36-hole cut because during the second day she finished with a 74, missing the cut by four shots.

During her press conference, she sounded surprisingly down, and practically conceded that she reached beyond reasonable expectations. Hey, after one try, why not give it another shot before throwing in the towel?

In any case, many fail to realize that the PGA never forbade female competitors. Indeed, Babe Didrikson Zaharias played in a PGA tournament in 1945, making the 36-hole cut, but failing to make the 54-hole cut. By contrast, the LPGA tour, by definition, confines its entrants to females.

How did Sorenstam qualify for Texas' Colonial invitational in the first place? She received a "sponsors' exemption," which allows, by any criteria, a select number of entrants to play. Some men, at first, grumbled that she failed to qualify by playing in a tournament from the women's rather than from the men's tee. She therefore, according to the critics, entered under less trying circumstances than those required for men. Golfer Vijay Singh, in particular, said, "I hope she misses the cut. Why? Because she doesn't belong out here." He then quickly backed up and said, "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." Yet, in years past, several men received sponsors' exemptions, including past "champions" no longer competitive. Thus, she did not "take a space" from a male tour golfer.

What's the harm? Last year, the 32-year-old Swede won 13 tournaments, exerting a dominance beyond that of even Tiger Woods. Fellow LPGA player Juli Inkster likens Sorenstam to Woods, "She's the Tiger Woods of our tour. If Tiger had a 'next level' to go to, I bet he would do it. I think she's one who always wants to challenge herself and see how she stacks up against the best. The men are the best."

Sorenstam simply crushes her league. She hits a ball longer than many men. She said she made no statement concerning women -- not one of those I-am-woman-hear-me-roar deals, but simply sought to elevate her game by playing with the best.

Does this mean that men can now compete in a LPGA Tournament?

Years ago, a boy in New York tried out for and made the girls' high school field hockey team, which state regulations allowed him to do because there was no boys' field hockey team. New York reporter Melissa Hebert summed it up precisely when she wrote, "With girls going out for boys' teams, the question is, is she good enough? When a boy goes out for a girls' team, the question often is, is he bad enough?"

One female commentator cheered on Sorenstam and called golf a "non-gender sport." If, by that, she means both sexes play the game, sure. If, however, she suggests that most professionals possess equal skills or hit the ball just as far, she fails to properly credit Annika with abilities far beyond those of most professional female golfers.

As mentioned earlier, Annika called the Colonial a one-time event, and that she did not anticipate entering into any other male events. The Colonial, say experienced golfers, while 700 yards longer than the typical LPGA setup, remains one of the shorter men's courses with only two par fives, and thus the Colonial is one where women might likely compete more effectively. Other courses, with higher pars, likely serve more problematic for female golfers, however talented.

Still, Sorenstam beat 11 other men, and displayed poise, class and a sense of humor. Hey, if a female pitcher for the New York Yankees can throw a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, imagine the attendance.

Where is Martha Burk, the woman who banged the gates to let women into Augusta? Where is the National Organization for Women (NOW), one of whose chapter presidents disagreed with charging Scott Peterson for double homicide in the murder of his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner?

As a step forward for, call it, female achievement and accomplishment -- especially without the supportive agitation of some civil rights group -- this seems far more historically significant. Most male golfers offered support, and, in fact, pulled for her and cheered her on. Television ratings soared, and the event drew 400 reporters, nearly four times the customary number. Meanwhile, Burk's anti-Masters protest drew about 50 attendees, many members of the press.

Somehow, someway, Sorenstam pulled this off without NOW's Kim Gandy or the National Council of Women's Organizations' Burk. Say it ain't so.