It certainly didn’t seem like a slow news week. Internationally, there was the rumored re-emergence of both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Nationally, the Bush Administration raised the terror alert status, and Congress grappled with a tax cut. Nevertheless, this is the lead for a Page One story in the Arizona Republic on Wednesday: “It’s a planetary alignment that would wow Galileo: Mars and Venus sharing a tee box.” I don’t even think the Republic overstated it. The Colonial issued three times as many media credentials as it issued last year. USA Network expanded its Thursday coverage of the golf tournament from two hours to seven. Its morning coverage gave only the slightest pretext of covering the golf tournament. Patty Sheehan happened to be in the booth, and USA lined up interviews with Jan Stephenson, Judy Rankin, and Meg Mallon.
The whole business of Annika Sorenstam playing an event on the PGA Tour raises some interesting questions. Unfortunately, a few of those questions will be ignored, and others should be.
Does Annika deserve to be there?
This was a ridiculous question raised by Vijay Singh and echoed by many others. The PGA Tour has a priority ranking system for tournaments. Priority #12, ahead of the top 125 finishers on the Tour’s money list from the previous year, is sponsor exemptions. (The Colonial is an invitational tournament, which means it has a system similar to the Tour’s but for a limited field. That system also includes sponsor exemptions.)
The rule about sponsor exemptions is vital to the PGA Tour. Not only does it recognize that the sponsor — here, Bank of America — pays the freight, but it has been the means for some of golf’s greatest stars to play on Tour. For example, Tiger Woods never “qualified” for the PGA Tour. After winning the 1996 U.S. Amateur Championship, he began playing Tour events on sponsor exemptions. When he won in Las Vegas, he became exempt from qualifying for 1997 and 1998. Of course, he has won a lifetime worth of exemptions since then, but his entrance to the Tour was through sponsors, not by playing his way into tournaments. When European stars like Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie play on the U.S. Tour, they are generally playing on a sponsor exemption.
Now that Annika Sorenstam has played a round on Tour, I don’t think there’s a question that she deserves this kind of shot. She’s not long, but neither is Scott Hoch or plenty of other Tour stars. With the course playing especially long because of all the rain, she hit 13 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens. She was only one over par and, if she could have putted only decently — and that was more a case of nerves than lack of ability — she probably would have finished the first round near the top 20.
Is Annika’s participation in the tournament a publicity stunt?
Nick Price, generally considered one of the nicest guys on Tour, said it was. It’s safe to say that this has been a publicity stunt to everyone but Annika Sorenstam. She hasn’t done anything inconsistent with her stated desire to test herself against the best competition in the world and learn from the best players.
As far as Bank of America and USA Network are concerned, this has been a bonanza of publicity, as it should be. I don’t know if Nick Price and anyone else denigrating Sorenstam’s participation because of its publicity value is willing to recognize this, but publicity is what pays the bills, and that includes Nick Price’s bills.
Price’s last win, the 2002 Colonial, paid him $774,000. When he won the event in 1994, it paid $252,000. The difference had nothing to do with Price’s performance either time. Tiger Woods got Price a lot of that extra $522,000, even though Woods not only didn’t play in the Colonial last year, but played in a competing event in Germany that week. Woods has brought a tremendous amount of interest to the PGA Tour, and that has translated into lots more money for everybody. Woods, of course, hasn’t done it alone, but he has been “the story” enough for the entire Tour to benefit tremendously.
A gimmick a week isn’t going to help the Tour, but a varied schedule of events, featuring many different stories, keeps the public watching. Some weeks, it is whether Tiger Woods can add to his legend. Other weeks, it is whether Jay Haas and Scott Hoch show they can compete at the highest level as they approach their fiftieth birthdays, or whether Phil Mickelson finally gets the monkey off his back and wins a major, or if some nobody-from-nowhere wins the big check, or if the best women’s player in the world tests herself against the best men. Annika is just doing her part to feed the beast, like Vijay did the week before, showing that he could extricate his foot from his mouth in time to win the Byron Nelson.
Can we give Annika Sorenstam a break?
Annika Sorenstam has been unbelievably cool this week, on the course and off. On her Tour, she is the biggest star, but has always seemed reluctant in the spotlight. The LPGA is in trouble, and it can capitalize on this week if Annika displays herself in LPGA events more like she has this week, sharing with the audience a combination of passion, competitiveness, nerves, and even girlish charm. Her Tour is working hard to improve its image — I could be wrong but I think even the LPGA logo has a smaller waist — and having a top star who grabs, rather than avoids, attention, along with a growing number of attractive women who can hit the ball a mile, can turn the tide. If they make their courses a tiny bit longer, and prepare their putting surfaces like the PGA Tour (there being no reason the world’s best putter can’t be a woman), they will succeed.
Despite some of PGA Tour members’ attitudes, the Tour will survive Annika and vice versa. The LPGA Tour, if it plays this correctly, could be a big beneficiary. Now all we have to do is get people to cut Corey Pavin some slack.