Pride of Annika puts prejudice out in the open

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The Independent Online

Perhaps in the end the last week at Colonial merely reminded us of two things we should have already known: Annika Sorenstam is a class act, and certain male professionals are not. Over the years, members of the PGA Tour have sometimes had difficulty accepting others into their ranks, particularly those who might be a threat, be they another colour or nationality.

But over two days a Swedish woman showed it is nonsense to be talking about gender restrictions on the best professional circuits and at championships such as The Open, which should remove its "male only" regulation. It may not happen for a while, and Sorenstam may not be the one to do it, but eventually a woman will compete in the oldest and grandest golfing event in the world.

At the end of her odyssey on Friday night, when she missed the cut at the Colonial after rounds of 71 and 74, Sorenstam was emotionally spent. She failed by five strokes to qualify for the last two rounds and finished tied for 96th place. Only 11 competitors finished below her, but she was also only 13 strokes off the lead, held by Kenny Perry and Dan Forsman.

Sorenstam had one birdie in each round, but on the second day faltered, with five bogeys in eight holes around the turn. Bravely, however, she parred in over the last six holes, making a 12-footer at the last after a rare missed fairway.

The Swede was cheered all the way round the course, and she could not keep the tears back at the end. "It was a great week, but I've got to go back to my tour, where I belong," she said. "I'm glad I did it, but this is way over my head. I wasn't as tough as I thought I was. I was so nervous. I'm emotionally drained. I gave it all I had. I've climbed as high as I can, but it was worth every step of it. I don't want to do this again, but I will always remember this. I am proud of the way I played all week under the circumstances."

There was humour, too: "I actually got two phone numbers, which is pretty good."

Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber probably got more television time than they would have done otherwise without playing alongside Sorenstam. If she has raised her profile and her endorsement value, then why not? Where was the recognition when she was winning every-thing in sight on the LPGA Tour over the last two seasons? What will the media attention be like when she tees up in Chicago on Friday at an event she won by 11 strokes last year?

From tee to green, Sorenstam was not overwhelmed by the 7,080-yard course and never had worse than a bogey on her card. Her short game needs a bit of work and she had two off-days with the putter, admitting that her feel goes when she is nervous. But you cannot shoot a 59 without being a decent putter. Her target now is probably to win more major championships. Karrie Webb has outpaced the Swede in that department recently, and Sorenstam missed the cut at last year's British Women's Open.

"For me to come here, get the opportunity to really push myself and live my dream was fantastic," she added. "I hope other women and girls feel the same way, that they have just got to follow their hearts. And that's why I'm here. I just want to push myself and do what I love to do best."

Sorenstam is the sort of role model that both boys and girls can aspire to. But if there is to be a sexual revolution in the game it will not first come at the professional end. It is at junior level that girls need to learn to seek the higher standards that the traditional women's sections cannot offer.

A unified handicapping system cannot be beyond the wit of humankind. No more men's and women's tees. Just medal tees for the pukka competitions, members' tees for handicapping purposes, and forward tees for social games involving those with higher handicaps, be they male or female, seniors or juniors.

There will always be a place for women's competitions, and competitions for certain handicap categories, but otherwise they should be open to anyone good enough to enter. If an inclusive model is required, try Sorenstam's homeland in Sweden.

"I hope we'll take women's golf to a new, different level," she said. "Way higher, I hope."

After signing her card on Friday, Sorenstam took calls from the commissioners of both the PGA and LPGA tours. "Mr Finchem just wanted to tell me that he was proud of me and ofwhat I did for the game. I had never talked to him before, so that was special for him to call me.

"And then the commissioner of the LPGA, Mr Votaw, called as well. He was saying how the whole tour was proud of me and what I've done for them, and that I should be proud of what I've done. So that was a special call as well."