Golf: Davies making pitch for fairer way

The Brian Viner Interview: `I don't care how good Tiger Woods is, if he is worth $50m, then I must be worth more than $5,000. It's frustrating'
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NEXT WEEK, Brocket Hall Golf Club in Hertfordshire welcomes the inaugural Laura Davies Invitational, the brainchild of Davies herself, who watched Betsy King hosting her own tournament in America and thought, "anything she can do...". The Laura Davies Invitational has a prize fund of pounds 300,000, very substantial indeed by the standards of the Ladies European Tour. The sponsors had a smaller prize fund in mind until Davies - still, at 35, arguably the most famous female golfer in the world - flexed her considerable muscle. "I said `let's not do it then'. I didn't want professionals turning up for a pittance."

Davies - who 10 days ago won her 56th tournament worldwide, the European LPGA at Gleneagles - has strong views about professionalism and its just rewards. While Tiger Woods and David Duval bleat that they want payment for taking part in the Ryder Cup, Davies nurses a set of somewhat more justified grievances. Indeed, so disgusted was she with Nike for offering her $5,000 (pounds 3,125) to wear their golf shoes for a year, as opposed to the millions they pay Tiger Woods, that she refused to wear Nike ever again.

"I don't care how good Tiger Woods is," she says. "If he's worth $50 million or whatever, then I've got to be worth more than $5,000. It's frustrating. All you can do is say `no, thank you', and hope that one day they want you. That's what you pray for. That the ones who knock you will one day need you. Then you have to find the courage to tell them to get lost."

Fittingly, given this financial chit-chat, we are in a boardroom just down the road from the Bank of England. Davies is no Annika Sorenstam, as she would be the first to admit, but more athletic-looking than she sometimes appears on the telly or in magazines. She is softly spoken and, initially, more than a little wary of the tape recorder in front of her, not to mention the journalist behind it. But she warms to her theme. "We have to play 35 weeks a year, unlike the men. They can play 20 weeks a year if they want. Because in one tournament they can win $500,000. For winning in Sweden the other week I won pounds 22,000. Now don't get me wrong. I know that's a year's wages for some people, and I'm not saying that we should have parity with the guys, like they were arguing at Wimbledon.

"Parity will never happen in golf and nor should it. We are the best women players in world, but they're the best golfers. And that's fine. But even so. About the same time as I won pounds 22,000, Garcia won pounds 166,000. Well, if Garcia wins pounds 166,000, I think I should win pounds 80,000 or pounds 90,000. Because if I'm getting that sort of money, then 20th place is getting something like pounds 12,000, and not pounds 1,000 as they do at the moment. You see, it's all very well at the top end of our sport, for me and Trish [Johnson] and Ali [Alison Nicholas]. But at the bottom end they are having to work all winter, waitressing or doing secretarial work, at a time when they should be improving their game. Professional sports people need to spend time on their sports."

It is a convincing argument, but it boils down to one key question. It is no good Davies claiming that her earning power should be half that of her male counterparts, if she has only 20 per cent, say, of their skill. It is a well-worn issue, but let us explore it again. How does she stand alongside the chaps?

"I think my game is comparable," she says, firmly. "My length off the tee is close. The irons are similar. In fact, when I played with Curtis Strange I was a club longer. But we play shorter courses. I played a tournament in Malaysia last year with Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Jesper Parnevik, and I was found out a bit, because 1,000 yards is a lot to find in one day. Maybe if I got used over a year or so to hitting six-irons into par fours instead of wedges, and three-irons to par threes instead of nine- irons, then I could compete.

"A few years ago, when I was at my best and won 27 times in three years, I did think it would be nice to play in a men's event for the sheer crack of it. Obviously I wouldn't say I was as good as them. That would be ridiculous. I'd probably have missed the cut at Carnoustie by 20 shots at least. If I was playing at my very best and played in 10 consecutive men's tournament, I might miss all 10 cuts but other people don't think so. John Daly and Ernie Els have both said I'd do OK. On the day I played with Ernie in that thing in Malaysia I played really well, and he reckoned that I wouldn't win any of their tournaments but that I would make cuts. I don't take that as a knock. I'm happy with that."

Of the men she hasn't yet played with, Davies selects Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Nick Price to make up her dream fourball. She has played many times with John Daly, whom she counts as a good friend. Indeed, she is sometimes reckoned to be Daly's female equivalent, in terms both of the power she generates though the ball and her fondness for living life in the fast lane. Not that she ploughs through the central reservation quite like Big John.

"No, when he whacks the ball off the green with his putter or whatever, you think `Oh God, why did he do that?', but I would never dream of saying anything to him. He is a great guy and when he's playing well he's one of the best. If he hits it hard and I hit it hard then I'm lucky to be within 100 yards of him. I do swing better when I've been watching the men, actually. I try to pick up their rhythm and timing. Freddie Couples has the swing I most admire. If I could swing like anyone, it would be him."

Not that Davies lacks confidence in her own swing. She has never been coached, and insists that "it would drive me insane. I don't like being told what to do. As silly as it sounds, I'd rather do it myself and make a mess of it." All the same, she welcomed some putting advice from Vijay Singh. "I've been having problems with putting for the last 18 months. Vijay told me to try the left-hand-low grip and it worked, though I've gone back now."

Despite sporadic problems with her putting, her tournament wins - 17 of them in America and four of them majors - are testimony to her talent. Again, Davies sees a disparity with the fellas. "If a British man had achieved the same," she says, leaving me to fill in the obvious. "I mean, Monty couldn't be much more high profile, and six money lists is incredible, but I've won four majors, two in one year, yet I'm relatively unknown next to Monty. It's right that he should have the recognition, and I don't lose sleep over it... but when I won two majors in a year - the LPGA and the Du Maurier - there was just a tiny picture of me in The Times. That was the year I had a chance to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Damon Hill got it in the end, and he hadn't won anything, while I wasn't even in the top three."

If all this makes Davies sound a little ungrateful for what golf has given her, nothing could in fact be further from the truth. I have never met a sporting star, male or female, who more enjoys the trappings of success. Every time she wins, she treats herself to something extravagant. Indeed, her house, not to mention the six acres of Surrey countryside that go with it, is filled with items which she can attribute to particular tournaments.

"I can remember every one of them," she says. Her first professional victory was in the 1985 Belgian Open, for which she won pounds 6,000. "I was four shots back with three holes to go, and finished eagle, birdie, birdie. I bought a video and television for my bedroom. When I won the Du Maurier I bought this diamond bracelet for about pounds 2,500. And when I won in Sweden the other week I was racking my brains what to buy. In the end I got a new digital camera." Her biggest purse to date was $210,000 in the Las Vegas Invitational. "I bought a VW Beetle, the new shape, for $16,000. A lovely car, you can't get them here. I use it when I'm in the States. Here I drive a Ferrari Berlinetta and a BMW 540 Touring."

I ask Davies whether she might consider a car swap and perhaps a house swap. Go on, just for a week. "No way," she says. Her house, she adds endearingly, is her "pride and joy". It has a floodlit football pitch, a tennis court, even a nine-hole pitch-and-putt course - with one green and nine tees. Inside, there's a games room with snooker, pool and table- tennis tables, a darts board, and a widescreen TV for watching current affairs programmes. I jest. For watching sport. "And outside, it's like going for a walk in a park," she says. "I've bought quite a few bronze deer which are spread around. My mum and stepfather are really into gardening, so they love it."

Davies, if you hadn't guessed, is a sports fanatic. She is a devoted supporter of Liverpool FC who hates Arsenal "with a passion". And famously, she ruined her chances of winning a tournament in Phoenix after injuring her wrist by tripping over the kerb while attempting a lavish pull shot in a car park cricket match. There are two "Test" matches a year on the LPGA tour. "But we have to play with a tennis ball," says Davies, forlornly. "We can't risk a cricket ball."

Her other well-known enthusiasm is gambling. "But I'm getting a bit fed up with casinos," she says. "I never hear of anyone winning any more. I've only ever once thought I was stupid to gamble, and that was in a casino. I lost about pounds 4,000 and didn't like the feeling. I prefer horse- racing now." Her biggest win? "About pounds 21,000 on a multiple bet, a Canadian." And golf? "No, I hate betting on golf. I like playing for prize-money but I don't like losing my own."

Well, I don't mind the odd punt on golf. And in her own tournament, Davies, who has a splendid sense of occasion, might just be worth a fiver each way.