Sharron Davies has a lot to answer for

It's simple: if you're a female athlete who wants to make a splash (and make as much as the men), strip off or dress up and pout for Britain. It worked for our most famous Olympic swimmer, and it may work for professional golfers. What's sport got to do with it?
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It happens, I would say, once in every series of Question of Sport. It happens during the Mystery Guest round, in which contestants try to guess the identity of a sports personality with the help of Nic Roeg-style intercuts of them driving a toy train.

What happens is that one of the teams will be presented with a flash of crew cut, a glimpse of size eight trainer, a long shot of a completely flat chest in a Pringle sweater. Everyone will be baffled by this ambiguous figure. Who can it be? "Peter Beardsley?" someone will hazard. But no. Once in every series the person driving the toy train, the person who is mistaken for a man, will, in fact, be a woman golfer.

Of course nobody really thinks that women golfers look like ageing male footballers auditioning for a role in Cadfael. Nevertheless, with their sensible hair and silly trousers they are, on the whole, viewed like most of their male counterparts: as resolutely unglamorous people who are never going to cause you to take your eye off the ball.

Until now, that is. Yesterday, a photograph appeared in the press which showed seven of Europe's women golfers dressed like cruise ship chanteuses, having swapped their checked shorts for the contents of the Cocktail Wear department at Selfridges. The accompanying article made quite clear the purpose of this dazzling image transformation: it was a straightforward publicity ploy, designed to attract attention and - please God - sponsorship to the women's tour.

It was to coincide with the start, today, of the Weetabix British Women's Open, a major competition but one of only 10 tournaments to be played by women golfers this season (the men's tour, by comparison, has 37 events). The women's tour also recently lost its umbrella sponsor, American Express, who, having `invested" almost pounds 4m in the sport, decided that enough was enough; this sport was simply not getting the publicity they wanted.

Hence the glad rags and the glamour. And that one photograph probably did get women's golf more coverage than it has received, over the past few years, from all its tournaments put together. If nothing else, at least next time a female golfer is mistaken for someone on Question of Sport, it will be for Denise van Outen rather than Dennis Wise.

Nevertheless there was something a little strange - a little pre, rather than post, feminist - about those smiling women in their "you see, I don't look like a smaller breasted Colin Montgomerie!" poses.

The most obvious irony about the photo was that the former World No.1, England's Laura Davies, was not in it. She couldn't be, because if she had put on one of those glittery dresses it would have exploded around the photographer's studio and scattered itself in a spray of sequined shards.

Yet Laura Davies is a magnificent sportswoman, whose talent and devil- may-care attitude would, you feel, give her a fine disregard for flipperies like Frank Usher cocktail gowns. Why should she care about such nonsense, when her splendid shoulders can power a ball as far as almost any man can? If any female golfer in Europe deserves sponsorship, it is she; indeed, she is currently seeking a backer for a "Laura Davies Open".

But is talent enough? She is a great golfer, yes... and yet, the treacherous thought occurs, that if she were thin and glamorous, sponsors would be queuing up to throw money at her, like gamblers at a bookmaker.

This, after all, is the message of the women golfer beauty parade. Nowadays, in the world of sport, if you want to attract real, youthful, lucrative attention, being good at your job is not enough. As in almost every other world, you have got to be saleable, and - let us be honest - for a sportswoman that means, ideally, being saleable as a "woman".

Sharron Davies was the first to pose for overtly glamorous shots, and she has joined the high earners through high-profile product endorsement.

Of course people are terrible hypocrites about this, perhaps because the truth about how sportswomen are viewed is, sometimes, an uncomfortable one. Everyone knows that sponsors would rather have their logo emblazoned across Anna Kournikova's taut haunches than around Lindsay Davenport's capacious hips. Some of them try to pretend that pretty sportswomen don't have a 10-metre advantage over the rest. Most, but not all, of them give up trying.

Which means that women's sport is, at present, portrayed in a rather contradictory way. On the one hand we have the worthy camp, banging its conscientious drum about how not enough girls are being encouraged in their schools to become touch judges, and organising fact-finding missions to discover just how many women work in football administration in the EU.

On the other hand we have the bastard-sons-of-Loaded camp, campaigning to introduce beach volleyball to the Commonwealth Games and sitting through afternoons of gymnastics in order to watch 13-year-old Belorussians perform the Kama Sutra on a four-inch beam.

Neither camp, it must be said, is especially lovable. I had fallen foul of the first - receiving a torrent of hate mail when I dared to suggest in a newspaper article that women's rugby was slightly less compelling than the All Blacks versus South Africa. And, as the women golfers realised in their "we are totty" photograph, playing by its rules probably gets the more direct result.

After all, whether women like it or not, most men watch female sport in a different way than they watch male sport. Men tend to accept sport as sexless until women intrude upon it; at that point all the potential eroticism of which they are subliminally aware bursts forth.

Almost every man I have ever spoken to admits that, when he's watching female sport, for some of the time he feels that he is watching sport. For the rest of the time he feels he is watching sex. This isn't meant to be disrespectful. It's just the way it is. Women's sport is not the norm, he will say, so it cannot help but have a certain piquancy, a frisson. He cannot help but feel like a voyeur, watching women do what men do, from inside his man's world.

Of course not all men feel this way; but even the most carefully correct amongst them will sometimes fall into this kind of thinking. A friend of mine, a radio journalist, could take a PhD in tracing the advancement of women within the sporting world: an advancement in which sincerely takes pleasure.

Yet one night he and I were at an event, in which, in order to raise money for charity, a young blonde high jumper put on a display of her skills.

"Christ!" he said. "Legs that go up to her arm pits, fit as a butcher's dog, wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crisps." Then, as the cataract of cliches came to an end: "The sponsors will be falling over themselves." And they were - until it became clear that the girl's physical charms were stronger than her physical abilities.

As with other worlds, so with the world of sport. In literature, at the moment, there is a mania for finding 17-year-old nymphets who write novels, in their best joined-up hand, about the clothes that they buy at Hyper and the clubs they wear them to. Gullible publishers fling blank cheques at these girls, who get photographed for newspapers. The books are terrible, the publishers lose all their money and everyone thanks God for writers such as Julian Barnes.

So it is with sport sponsorship. A girl can be promoted on her looks - like the extremely beautiful heptathlete, Denise Lewis - but she sure as hell better have something to back it up with. Lewis has, of course. So too, perhaps, have some of the glamorous golfers teeing off at Royal Lytham St Annes today.

But if I were a sponsor, I'd stick with Laura Davies. She'll never be mistaken for Denise van Outen on Question of Sport. Still, lipstick and feathers are easy come, easy go; and they don't mean a thing if they ain't got that swing.