Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Pro golf needs to swallow its pride to make progress

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , FORT WORTH, TEXAS

Golf owes Annika Sorenstam a thank-you note. Even though the world's best female golfer didn't make the 36-hole cut at the Colonial, she put into perspective the enduring controversy over Augusta National's absence of a woman as a member.

With her shy and smiling manner, Sorenstam was all about the game of golf and about women in sports, not about women in the politics or the sociology of an all-male golf club and the women's movement.

Sorenstam is golf's woman at center stage now, not Martha Burk. The proof was in the pudding of the populi. Only about 40 protesters attended Burk's peaceful rally not far from the Augusta National gates in Georgia on the Saturday of the Masters last month. Sorenstam's galleries at the Colonial on Thursday and Friday were so big, nobody really knew how big. Thousands were the best estimate.

All those young and old men and women, and all those boys and girls were there to cheer Sorenstam because, whether they played golf or not, they could identify with what she was doing: testing her game and her psyche against the men from the men's tees. And she more than passed the test. Give her an A, and not just an A for Annika.

In the Augusta National debate between its chairman, William "Call me Hootie" Johnson, and Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, most folks simply couldn't identify with the controversy. It wasn't really a golf issue, it was a women's movement issue.

Not, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, that there's anything wrong with that.

But the only people the Augusta National debate really involved were Johnson and his henchmen among the other wealthy Augusta National members, many of them corporate chief executives', and whichever one or two or three wealthy women, if not a chief executive herself, might eventually be measured for a green jacket.

What Sorenstam did was different. She had to post a score for everyone to see and hear. Hootie and Martha just posted arguments that, while important to some, not everyone wanted to see or hear. Sorenstam's performance might even inspire a new national championship tournament, a US Mixed Open.

The US Golf Association, which puts on 13 national championships, should organize a 72-hole tournament with a field of 150 golfers -- 75 men and 75 women. In a Mixed Open, the women's yardage would be shorter than that of the men, as it is at every golf course.

Sorenstam survived 7,080 yards at Colonial, but her 36-hole total of 145 was 13 strokes behind Kenny Perry and Dan Forsman, the co-leaders after two rounds. For her and the other women to be up there on the leader board at a Mixed Open, they would need to play a course that was, say, 6,500 yards for them and 7,000 for the men.

When a Mixed Open was suggested to the USGA in other years, its officials mentioned the difficulty of setting up different tees so that, ideally, most women would be hitting the same club to the green as most of the men. Setting up those different tees would be tricky, but it's worth whatever trial and error would be necessary.

Some of the men, such as Vijay Singh, might not enter a Mixed Open to avert the possible embarrassment of shooting a higher score than some women. But if the USGA put up enough prize money, say US$1 million to the winner, many of the world's top 100 men would enter.

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