When Tiger Woods went on his 2000-2001 tear, winning four straight majors, he sucked up just about all the available publicity in the world of golf. More than one golf insider remarked that women’s tour champ Annika Sorenstam had had a better year, winning about a dozen times in the same period.
Sorenstam made all the headlines last week — front pages, not just sports — when she announced she would play in the Bank of America Colonial men’s tournament, held at the Colonial Country Club in Ft. Worth, Ben Hogan’s home club. Play starts Thursday, May 22. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious PGA tour events, at a relatively short course by the men’s standards (about 7,000 yards), a course known for narrow fairways that reward accurate play rather than raw power. The cottonwood trees are so old that some of them have names; the most famous, Big Annie, fell in a storm some years back.
Sorenstam picked the event and the course carefully, and will accept what is called a “sponsor’s invitation” to play. (A sponsor can invite three or four participants per tourney, usually tour players who are having current trouble with exemptions or their health or with a slowly expiring career. The B of A could invite a horse if it wanted to; the PGA Tour is very commercial.) She is fully eligible to compete, to win money, and to take the money home.
This is no Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs stunt. Sorenstam’s scoring average last year was 68.7. She won $2.8 million, leading the LPGA Tour. She wins ten or twelve times a year. She is a fit, nervy, hard-working athlete. She does some things arguably better than most men, notably drive accurately off the tee, with a fairways-hit percentage of about 80. The PGA Tour median is about 65 percent. She has shot a 59 in tournament play, that Holy Grail of golf achievement.
So how will she do? Rather than get into the mystic arcana of golf at this point and lose all my regular readers, I’ll just tell a story.
In 1994, I attended two professional golf tournaments in the Boston area, the now-defunct CVS Classic at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton, Massachusetts, a men’s event, and the LPGA (Ladies’ Professional Golf Association) tournament at Blue Hills Country Club. I went to Sutton on a Thursday and spent the whole day, and went on a Saturday with my wife to Blue Hills, parked Sally at a couple of convenient viewing points (she was pregnant) and walked the course for the whole afternoon, watching various groups.
The Blue Hills Tournament, won by Helen Alfredsson (who looks like the world’s greatest girlfriend), was easy to view. You could stand at the side of a fairway, about where the players landed their drives, watch a second shot into a green, then move ahead for the putts, and go to the next hole. You could hear Dottie Mochrie (now called Dottie Pepper after a divorce) cuss and growl when she hit a shot she didn’t like, or make a casual remark to Julie Inkster walking by, and get a reply. And you could see every shot, whether viewing it from the side, from behind, or from back of the green coming toward you.
At Pleasant Valley, watching the men hit, you might as well have been trying to track mortar shells. TV, with its superbly skilled camera operators, computer-aided tracking mechanisms, and contrast-enhancing filters, has spoiled us by showing us the trajectory of every shot. In person, unless you have an ideal view — basically the same as the player, watching the shot from behind; and those spots get grabbed quick — you can’t see a thing. You can sometimes hear a ballistic fizz as a ball rockets off a club face. But see it? Forget it, until the white missile drops almost straight down out of the sky.
Of course men hit the ball farther than women. But that’s not the most important thing. Men hit it so much faster, so much higher, and with so much more spin, that they get greater control and accuracy, too, even on shorter shots. In 1994, virtually no woman could spin a ball backwards, landing it on the green. Many women, aided by better golf balls, can do that nowadays, including Sorenstam.
Even at that, ballistics will tell for Sorenstam at Colonial. In gentle sunshine with soft breezes, she could do very well. In a howling wind or rain, her relative lack of ballistic penetration will make a bigger difference, perhaps a disastrous difference.
Golf is a refined game, and the world of golf is a generous place. Everybody wishes Annika Sorenstam well. Everybody will watch. This is going to be fun.