This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The final event of the women's golf season teed off today in Palm Beach and, even though the winner will take home a cool million on Sunday, indicating the health of the LPGA tour, there seems to me a mystery disconnect when it comes to the current report card of women's golf in general. The stars of the game couldn't be more exciting personalities. Nor more diverse. Nor more marketable. World Number One, Mexico's Lorena Ochoa, is not only brilliant from driver to short game to the greens, she's a media darling. Approachable, modest, giving. She readily mixes with the public, signs autographs with infinite good nature, poses for pictures with kids with genuine pleasure, and gives the press authentic and thoughtful quotes and generous time. As a Latina champion, from a culture where women are not yet mainstream athletes, Ochoa is cultured, elegant...a dream ambassador for the game.
And the competitors nipping at Ochoa's heels make for a charismatic cast of characters as well. The young phenoms such as Morgan Pressel, who became the youngest major champion in the game's history, and Paula Creamer, a feisty outspoken personality, not to mention media magnet Michelle Wie, have brought fashion, bravado and sex appeal to the tour. The veterans, such as Annika Sorenstam and Julie Inkster, are noble and awe-inspiring as they continue to manage a golf course with deft finesse and crisp focus.
So here's the disconnect. We have the deepest and most compelling field in the history of the game. We have sponsors coughing up sizeable purses and tacking on more tournaments year after year. Yet the television ratings are not just disappointing, they're abysmal. There were cheerleading events that drew bigger TV audiences than women's golf this season. And what I really don't get is that it has been thrown around for many years that the women professionals are the ones truly relatable for the men who are average duffers around the country. Surveys and anecdotal evidence have been compiled to tell us that a male-club player enjoys the women's pro game because he can at least begin to imagine hitting the same length drive, whereas the men pros hit unfathomable length off the tees. The same argument has been made for the relatability of women's tennis over the years. So why is that argument not nailing down its case now by way of hefty television popularity of women's golf? And why indeed is there not a master's tour of women's golfers, as there is a successful tour for men retired from the PGA?
I hate to knock Annika because she's hard to knock but the truth is that for the decade that she was the dominating grand champion of the tour, she went further than shying away from stardom. She fiercely protected her privacy. Polar opposite from Lorena Ochoa in this regard, Annika was until this year as impressive a champion as Tiger but her M.O. was to play extraordinary golf and then sequester herself from the press, from the public, and to a degree from the fans on site. The scenario would be comparable to us never having gotten to know Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert. Those three were equally genius on the court but what made them heroes to us….and what they did to help their sport cross over to a bigger stage and draw in a larger fan base...was their giving of their energy and sharing of their personalities off the court. We never got to know Annika Sorenstam and that was a shame, for us and for the growth of her sport.
Sports sociologists lecture that women's professional basketball and boxing and even soccer face an uphill battle in gaining widespread popularity because male sports fans still don't thrill to women mixing it up in contact sports, that they're stuck in the old school comfort zone of women shining in the traditionally genteel activities of golf and tennis and skating. Well, the ladies are at the first tee. Gentlemen, where are you?
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Lorena Ochoa of Mexico makes a tee shot on the seventh hole during the third round of the LPGA Longs Drugs Challenge at the Blackhawk Country Club October 6, 2007 in Danville, California. Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images