The blinkered, macho universe of professional golf is aghast. What can possibly come next? First an attempt to force Augusta National, home of the US Masters, to admit female members. And now a woman playing in an event on the sport's blue riband circuit, the PGA tour. Ordinary punters, however, can't wait.
This week, at the venerable Colonial tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, Annika Sorenstam will start providing an answer to a question that has tantalised golf fans for decades. How would the best women golfers fare against the men, on their own, longer courses? Beyond question, the 32-year-old Swede is the finest female golfer on earth. Last year she won 13 of the tournaments she entered, a dominance that eclipses that of Tiger Woods in men's golf. In one women's event in 2001 she shot a round of 59, a feat no woman had ever performed, the golfing equivalent of a batsman scoring a triple century at cricket.
But now comes the moment of truth. Tiger isn't playing the Colonial but the rest of the PGA's finest are. Six weeks ago, at the Masters, the National Council of Women's Organisations tried – unavailingly – to force the obdurate "Hootie" Johnson, Augusta's president, to let women into American golf's most rarefied and prestigious sanctuary.
This time, however, the argument is not about social mores. It's about golf. CBS, which broadcasts the sold-out event, is extending its coverage. A non-major PGA event hasn't attracted such attention in years, probably not since Babe Zaharias, the last woman to play in one, qualified for the Los Angeles Open in 1945.
After being offered a sponsor's exemption, Sorenstam has carefully picked the spot for her own debut, 58 years later. The 7,080-yard Colonial course is longer than any she has played. But many holes are doglegs, forcing the real power hitters to play safe with fairway woods or irons off the tee.
This should reduce the disadvantage for Sorenstam, whose average drive of 265 yards is tiny by the ever beefier standards of the PGA tour.
"If any woman golfer has earned this honour, she has," says Jesper Parnevik, Sweden's top male player and a PGA tour fixture. Even so, he adds, "she's got to play the golf of her life to make the cut" and qualify for the Colonial's final two days, when the real drama occurs.
Sorenstam must also cope with unwelcoming male adversaries like Vijay Singh.
"I hope she misses the cut, because she doesn't belong out there," Singh told the Associated Press. And the two-time major winner, currently ranked the world's seventh best player, added for good measure: "It's just difficult for ladies to play on the men's tour. It's like getting the Williams sisters to play tennis against a man – and they're far better athletes than she [Sorenstam] is." That analogy, however, doesn't quite work. In golf a player competes only with himself. No one else is hitting your ball. If you play the course perfectly, there's nothing any opponent can do about it.
Another tour player, Scott Hoch, applies a stiletto rather than a bludgeon to make the same point. "I hope she plays well," he purrs, "so that what comes out of this is that she realises she can't compete against the men." Even Nick Price, the 46-year-old Zimbabwean who is among the most popular members of the tour, was moved to protest that the whole thing "reeks of publicity". Well of course – that's why the tournament sponsors and CBS are crying all the way to the bank. As for the LPGA women's tour, it hasn't received so much attention since CBS sacked its commentator Ben Wright in 1996 for implying that many of its players were lesbians.
This time, male golf's troglodytes, oblivious to equality in the workplace and the changing world around them, have confirmed all the old clichés – not least the idea that men play golf to escape from their womenfolk for a few hours.
Meanwhile Sorenstam's big moment approaches. She took last week off to prepare, summoning a special trainer from Sweden to help. She insists that her appearance is a one-off, and that her "core business" remains the LPGA tour. But she is quietly confident. "I'm not afraid of anything," she says. "I know I can play."Reuse content