Open house

THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION IN GOLF HAS FINALLY REACHED THE OPEN. BUT WILL IT ACTUALLY MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE?
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The Independent Online

Civilisation ends as we know it: women to play in the Open. That wasn't quite the thrust of the historic announcement made by the Royal and Ancient yesterday - actually it was more a "begrudging admission" that an "historic announcement" - but it was impossible not to feel at least a strong breeze of hundreds of years of supposedly unbudgeable tradition being blown aside in a few seismic sentences.

Civilisation ends as we know it: women to play in the Open. That wasn't quite the thrust of the historic announcement made by the Royal and Ancient yesterday - actually it was more a "begrudging admission" that an "historic announcement" - but it was impossible not to feel at least a strong breeze of hundreds of years of supposedly unbudgeable tradition being blown aside in a few seismic sentences.

"There is no problem in principle with women playing in the Open," said the R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson, in the clubhouse overlooking the hallowed 18th green here. "In fact, it is not a matter of principle but of detail." The most important detail, however, is that from next year the wording on the entry form will not begin "an entry will be accepted from any MALE professional golfer or from a MALE amateur golfer whose playing handicap does not exceed scratch".

What it will read when the paperwork for the 2006 renewal at Hoylake is formulated some time in the autumn will remain a mystery until the Championship Committee decides just what calibre of women they want competing in qualifying, although in theory St Andrews could have a women competitor here when it tees off for the 134th Open on 14 July. "If Michelle Wie wins the John Deere Classic, she would qualify for this year's championship. I am quite sure the committee would probably agree to it," Dawson said, before confirming that even if the 15-year-old Hawaiian was to miss the cut in the event but still finish as the leading non-exempt player in Illinois, she would still qualify.

And far from being appalled by such an epoch-defining scenario, the R&A were keen to stress just how delighted they, and, indeed, the whole sport, should be. "We would probably have higher attendances with more under-16s and more ladies coming to watch and we would probably have to put up more grandstands," said David Hill, the R&A's director of championships, agreeing that the spin-off could be the equivalent of that witnessed after Tiger Woods burst on to the scene. "We can take larger crowds if we have to."

Nevertheless, despite what must be seen as a refreshing change of attitude, many will still feel that it has only been effected in the wake of the wave of criticism that has been building in earnest ever since 2003 when Annika Sorenstam became the first female to play in a PGA Tour event for 45 years, heralding a rash of sponsors' invitations for LPGA professionals that were met with a significant degree of resentment, both from a few male pros as well as a tightlipped section of officialdom.

"We are not resentful - there is no resistance to it here," insisted Martin Kippax, the chairman of the R&A's Championship Committee. "It's novel and something that is new and needs to be considered. But we are not dragging our feet in any way. We are giving it the consideration it deserves because there needs to be a level playing field. We are perfectly happy about it."

So, too, among countless others, will be B J Wie, who vented his paternal fury at the R&A last January when he discovered that his daughter was barred from her intended ambition to qualify. He pointed to the fact that the US Open had thrown its doors open and that the teenaged amateur would be trying to get a spot at Pinehurst in June both through the traditional qualifying events as well as "through the back door" by trying to win the US Public Links Championship, which would also grant her an exemption.

A similar avenue has now been opened to Wie at the John Deere Classic, although the likelihood of that amounting to any more than a plucky challenge from a remarkable young lady is remote, especially when you consider that of the half a dozen or so females to compete against their male counterparts recently, none have made the cut. As a leading European professional (male), who understandably wished to remain nameless, mischievously put it yesterday: "Let them come and have a go if they think they're good enough. I can tell you they won't be, though. Unless the R&A gives them an advantage then I can't see it happening in the next 20 years."

And therin lies the crux of the problem that the R&A beaks must wrestle with to ensure that qualification to their revered tournament is not in any way cheapened in the rush to get a women on the first tee.

"Over my dead body will anyone ever devalue the Open," said Kippax, highlighting the R&A's intention to make sure that a woman gets there on merit, as an equal, and not "merely as a token gesture". "Could you imagine the day when someone said to us, 'but the ladies can't drive over that bunker?' Well, so what, we would say, this is the Open, it cannot be compromised," said Kippax.

For this reason, and more importantly the little fact that women play off tees that are often 50 yards closer to the green, the R&A will probably stipulate that only women off plus four handicaps or better - i.e., four shots better than scratch - will be eligible for qualifying. This would discount all but the professionals and a handful of amateurs.

That would obviously keep the numbers down, although the R&A is not anticipating a feminine stampede to their gates, not even to become the first woman member of the notoriously stuffy ruling body. Wie is believed to be the only high-profile female trying out for Pinehurst and as Kippax said yesterday "you can understand if they didn't want to miss playing for a few hundred grand in their own comps just to suffer the tortures of qualification". Sources close to Sorenstam yesterday revealed that the peerless Swede has no plans to take on the males any more regularly than she does currently and it looks like, in the foreseeable future anyway, that Wie will be the sole torch-carrier into a brave new world.

In truth, however, the image of Ivor Robson announcing, "On the tee, Michelle Wie," remains as fantastical as ever.

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