Golf: Why women's game is in danger of being hip

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The Independent Online
SOMETHING IS stirring in the pines at Woburn Golf Club, and it is not just the crowds flocking to today's Women's British Open or Laura Davies' Ferrari. All of a sudden women's golf is in danger of becoming cool. Karrie Webb sports a pair of Prince William-style wraparound glasses, Annika Sorenstam has ordered up a new jet and women's golf is even featured in the new Austin Powers movie, The Spy Who Shagged Me, albeit only in the stereotypical "love that dare not speak it's name" category.

It was around the time that Mark O'Meara started demanding money to play in the Ryder Cup that women's golf really became attractive. Say what you like about the women's game, but it is not synonymous with greed. It is, however, frequently and usually erroneously considered a spent force. Earlier this year, a golf magazine metaphorically buried the women's tour with a picture of a tombstone on its cover, accompanied by an article entitled: "The women's tour is dead: does anybody care?"

It is true that the women's tour was grievously injured, but because it had absolutely nothing to do with the standard of play, plenty of people cared a great deal. When Europe's male players began to beat the Americans at their own game - first, with Seve Ballesteros victories in the Masters and Open, and later with the 1987 Ryder Cup - the European Tour prospered, to the point where there are now 38 events worth an enticing pounds 37m.

When Europe's women did the same, first with Davies' victories in the British and US Opens, then with the European team's miraculous Solheim Cup triumph at Dalmahoy in 1992, and later with the rise to the top of the world of Sorenstam, Lotta Neumann, Alison Nicklaus and numerous others, the women's tour went into decline, run into the ground by a series of opportunists and no-hopers. The traditional feebleness of women when it comes to money matters was relentlessly exposed in the battle for the soul of women's golf.

The tour really was practically extinct when it was picked up earlier this year by the management company ESG, which masterminded the revival of the Omega Tour in Asia and has worked closely with the PGA in Australia. Other than the fact that the circuit has been renamed the Ladies' European Tour, a backward step if ever there was one, the tour is in its best health for years, with 16 events worth pounds 3.2m.

The new optimism in women's golf has been contagious. With the millennium fast approaching, women's golf does not just matter, it matters more than ever, and 54,000 people who felt that way poured over the rolling fairways of Gleneagles when Davies swept to victory in the McDonald's WPGA Championship of Europe last week. Off the course, golf fans queued to have their photographs taken with her Ferrari.

It is unlikely that Nick Faldo would give the average punter the time of day at a tournament, but stars of the women's game are generally friendly and appreciative. For all her success, Davies remains one of the most approachable people in sport.

"To me, women's golf is exciting because it is possible for the average person to relate to our game," said the Italian player Federica Dassu, who is the player-director on the board of the LET. "Apart from Karrie Webb, we don't hit [the ball] off the planet. It's more human. The guys hit it so far that it's almost unreachable for the average person. Our game is more about tempo and rhythm. It's more natural."

She feels that the amount of money now available on the LPGA Tour and, to a lesser extent, the LET Tour has had a dramatic effect on the mood, outlook and even the personalities of the players, particularly the young pros.

"People have got more money to look after themselves so they project more self-assurance," she said. "They're better dressed, they're fitter. People like Alfie and Laura are very charismatic. With more money, you can travel more and improve your golf, you can hire a personal trainer and a sports psychologist and you can look better. I've been on tour 15 years and I can remember when we all went to the laundrette together and wore the same shirt for three days because you could afford to use the hotel laundry."

Life was getting better but it was a long way short of perfect. Dassu, who was on her way to Woburn where she will face the challenge of Davies, Webb and Sorenstam today, contemplated the latter's new jet. "Lucky her," she said. "I've got to use my old car."