The world wakes up to golf's female big hitters

With its own Tiger Woods - South Korea's Inbee Park - the women's game has a growing audience

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The Independent Online

The historic march of Inbee Park, the South Korean golfer seeking an unprecedented grand slam with a fourth successive major victory in a calendar year, did not exactly get the locals out of bed on the opening day of the Ricoh Women's British Open. Mind you, it was a filthy morning at St Andrews, and Park was in the fourth group, out at 7.03am.

A smattering of hardy punters huddled beneath umbrellas as Park was called to the first tee. While it might have been more atmospheric had the galleries been rammed, a squad of Korean media ensured the frenzy back home was fed, while camera crews from the BBC and US beamed the next phase of this remarkable story into golf's heartlands. The world was on message, even if the citizenry of coastal Fife had not quite made the start of the party.

The women's game has been much in the news this summer with the argument about single-sex membership at golf clubs engulfing the Open Championship at Muirfield. The anachronistic foibles of a few crusty old men on the edge of Scotland are a secondary issue for the stakeholders in the women's game, but they were delighted with the publicity the debate brought.

Paradoxically, the drive for greater equality in the sport has come at a cost. The number of women playing the game has diminished significantly as a result of the Equality Act 2010, which did away with restricted hours for women. In truth, inequality suited women, who enjoyed the reduced fees that came with less access. Where weekends at some clubs were once the domain of the men's medal, women now have the run of the place at 99 per cent of institutions, but, it seems, they have neither the time nor the purse to take advantage.

According to Shona Malcolm, chief executive of the Ladies' Golf Union, a body celebrating 120 years serving female amateurs, the single-sex issue is a red herring. "There are far bigger concerns than the 1 per cent of clubs that operate that policy. In 2004/05, we had 208,000 ladies playing at clubs in Britain and Ireland; in 2011/12, that had dropped to 177,000. The 20-to-40 age group, in particular, is a big problem for us. So the negative impact is one of the unforeseen effects of the Act."

Another issue holding back progress is media coverage. As Ms Malcolm points out, those stalwarts of the fourth estate screaming loudest a fortnight ago about the injustice meted out to women by the Muirfield misogynists were oblivious to the performance of Britain's pre-eminent female golfer, Catriona Matthew, tussling for the leadership of the LPGA Classic in Canada seven days previously.

The epic journey of Park, who arrived at St Andrews with the first three majors of the season in her pocket, has done much to shove the Tigers and the Rorys down the pecking order, if only for a week. America's Associated Press sent its golf correspondent to Scotland in preference to Akron, Ohio, where Tiger Woods is simultaneously running away with a tournament. The chairman of the American Association of Golf Writers is also at St Andrews. The Golf Channel, ESPN, the sports television network, and The New York Times also sent representatives.

They were all part of the posse traipsing through the dreich Scottish morn in Park's wake. At least a part of the 25-year-old's charm is the modest delight she takes in the story she is weaving. It is a triumph for the ordinary woman – a competitor, to risk an Inverdale-ism, of no prima facie athletic attributes challenging the Hollywood stereotype, taking it to the Amazons on tour with a swing best described as agricultural.

For any sport to gain traction, it requires the public to invest emotionally in the characters and believe in the plot. Visibility is the key to both. These girls can play. They might not hit the ball as far as the men but take the tee shot out of the equation and there is nothing in it. Park has brought the world to the door of the women's game. And the world likes what it sees. Even the local audience had tuned in by Friday, with the sun warming the backs of swelling galleries.

Guy Kinnings, head of golf at IMG, the agency deployed by the sponsor Ricoh to spread the brand love at this tournament, believes IMG's investment in women's golf is finally paying off. "The game can grow in only two ways, geographically and demographically – by which I mean taking the game to communities who might never have considered it before. And a large part of that is attracting women to the game," he said. "Mark McCormack [IMG's founder] saw huge potential in the women's game. We have supported it for the best part of 20 to 30 years, largely without return. In some countries, the interest levels in the women's game is higher than in the men's. We see huge opportunities for growth.

"This wouldn't work if the product wasn't great. Big brands are not in it just because they like it, there is no sentiment in that regard. They need to get returns."

As a rule of thumb, the key elements in the women's game operate at roughly a third of the value of the men's. That holds for revenues generated, punters through the turnstiles, and prize money awarded.

"The crowds are not close to the men yet. But more important is the beaming of pictures around the world of great players at great venues," Mr Kinnings said.

By taking the Women's British Open to St Andrews for only the second time, the organisers have played this card, associating the women's game with one of the world's great courses. And, for the first time next year, the women's US Open will directly follow the men's, at the same prestigious Pinehurst venue, connecting worlds that have hitherto existed separately.

As the tournament reached halfway on Friday, Park had been tossed about by the worst of the wind and drifted eight shots off the lead. But, in one sense, it didn't much matter. Whether Park succeeds or fails today, it is enough that an audience has begun to gather, to care enough to tune in to the narrative – to hers and to that of others pursuing their dreams.