Monday, September 25, 2006

Will women's golf ever shed its country club status?

I have only recently become a fan of women's golf. So I don't know much about its history. I do, however, know a lot about women's tennis which I see as similar to golf in some respects. So I always am using the status of women's tennis as the marker against which to measure women's golf. Perhaps this is not really fair, but it's the only frame I have right now.
But it's an interesting frame because I see the disparities as huge especially as they relate to how the women's game has fared compared to the men's game. In tennis the women's game, I would argue, has as much visibility as the men's game. This is of course a recent development--5-10 years--and the visibility isn't always ideal (see my previous complaints about the characteriziation of the women's tour as "drama-filled"). But it's there. And sure there are many people who would rather watch the men's game any day--why I don't know--but there are plenty (men and women alike) who would much rather watch the women play.
The same can be said for women's golf. The media attention it gets is miniscule compared with women's tennis. And the prize money is ridiculously scewed. The women make far less money than the men week in and week out. In tennis we have Billie Jean King to thank for getting the ball rolling on more equitable prize money but because the men and women sometimes play the same events it seems all the more obvious. In golf there is no tournament where men and women are playing. Like tennis the men's and women's tours are separate, but unlike tennis they never ever come together. This means two things. One, the huge disparity in prize money is never really seen in context and two, the potential for achieving greater visibility for the women's game is never realized. Yes, it shouldn't be that women have to get fans from men's golf, but I am only suggesting it as one possible avenue.
Both tennis and golf have country club origins. Both still exude that air of elitism. But tennis has become more accessible whereas golf is still largely a game for the upper (and upper middle) crust. And I would guess that in the population of recreational golfers there are fewer women, proportionally, than there are recreational tennis players who are women. This also narrows the pool of fans.
But there has been no player in golf who has really been able to show the larger world that golf isn't just for the wealthy. Because it's a harder task. Equipment and access to space are larger barriers in golf than in tennis. Perhaps this will change with the increase in development programs offered by the USGA.
All this was inspired by my viewing this weekend of the Longs Drugs Challenge. It was a close tournament with Karrie Webb winning over Annika Sorenstam by only one stroke after Sorenstam had an exceptional Sunday shooting 65. Also rookie Morgan Pressel finally began to show the promise that had been swirling around her since she was 14. But what the commentators kept coming back to was that the race for Player of the Year was coming down to the wire with Lorena Ochoa in the lead but Webb and Sorenstam very close behind and Christie Kerr not out of the running either. All four were playing this weekend.
It made for some good drama. Drama that could garner more viewers. Sorenstam has dominated the game for so long, easily winning Player of the Year since the mid-90s. And before her, Webb dominated. But with four players in contention plus the whole crop of young players Wie, Pressel, and Paula Creamer among them, the game is pretty interesting. It is actually pretty similar to the current state of women's tennis. The older veterans are phasing out--though still quite competitive--and the younger ones are fighting to see who will be the next big thing.

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