Tucson might be best shot for Sorenstam on PGA Tour


February 05, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

AS A SIMPLE, straightforward, compelling plot, this women's sports story is one you'd have to pick over any of the others we've been inundated with the past eight months:

Annika Sorenstam and her quest to break golf's gender barrier - if that is indeed the way we should spin this thing.

Word from her International Management Group agent is that Sorenstam, who two weeks ago said she'd jump at the chance to play at a PGA event, may decide by the end of this week where to play. As an LPGA player, she must receive a sponsor's exemption to cross over to the men's tour.

With Tiger Woods nursing his surgically repaired knee and with so much bad blood over the Augusta mess, it's no wonder Sorenstam's chum bucket onto the manicured greens of the PGA created a feeding frenzy among sponsors. Word is that at least a half-dozen notes are piled under Sorenstam's door. Tournament sponsors whose job it is to sell tickets and television rights could not pass up this challenge - especially ones who don't want their wives or daughters calling them fools for missing the boat.

Which to choose seems more the question than should Sorenstam choose to play.

She should strike while the iron's hot - and before this drags on too long. We don't want her bogged down in what will be front-page drama. The attempt at this rare opportunity stands to lose its freshness and momentum, not to mention risk being over-analyzed, over-debated, overblown by people like you and me.

In eagerly announcing her interest, the 32-year-old Swede said she is at the top of her game now and doesn't want to wait too long. We can all sign that scorecard. So why not go for the Chrysler Classic, starting Feb. 27?

The tournament is played on Sorenstam's old college stomping grounds, where this former University of Arizona Wildcat was a unique star. It would be a natural setting, with a spin on a special homecoming. Sorenstam has whacked plenty of golf balls over the fairways at Tucson National. The thin, desert air helps make the 7,109-yard course play a little shorter than some of the big daddies that now anchor the PGA Tour.

This requirement for a course suited to her precision and accuracy has rankled some golf fans, who acknowledge length as a predominant factor in the men's game. Playing at a "home" course alters the ambience of this barrier-breaking event.

But more than distance, timing makes the Tucson event a perfect place. It is less than a month away. It precedes the LPGA's first event of the season, letting Sorenstam's venture be viewed as a warm-up for her "real" season.

Tucson is also four months ahead of teaching pro Suzy Whaley's scheduled entry in the Greater Hartford Open, a PGA event Whaley qualified for last year by winning a PGA sectional tournament - from the women's tees, creating a controversy over rules and requirements for qualifying standards.

Whaley should be commended for the classy way she handled the debate about her eligibility, but Sorenstam should go first. Whaley's participation in a PGA event is as much a cultural statement as it is athletics. Whaley has said so, acknowledging she only hopes to break 90 and she is playing to bolster the message that boundaries are made to be pushed, if not broken.

Sorenstam, however, allows the discussion (debate?) to be distilled to a more strictly athletic framework. Unlike Whaley, Sorenstam is battle-tested - beyond compare on the women's tour. She won 13 tournaments last year - 11 LPGA events - to establish the greatest season of golf for a woman in 40 years. This has so far separated Sorenstam from her LPGA "peers" that the LPGA's second-leading player, Si Re Pak, concedes, "I have no words" to describe Sorenstam.

Any way you slice it, Sorenstam's quest is the ultimate changeup pitch from the gender equity branch of big-time sports. It's refreshing. It makes you think. It forces you to confront Sorenstam and her greatness more than it reduces her to some poster child for advancing the cause of all women's golfers, because she isn't like them.

In British soccer leagues, clubs from lower divisions move up after winning seasons. This is a good way to frame Sorenstam's quest.

If Sorenstam were Serena Williams, the dominating player on the women's tennis tour, this would not be an issue. No one talks about how the younger Williams sister should take a wild-card entry on the men's side of a Grand Slam tournament. It is well assumed that a male player ranked No. 127 would ultimately beat Serena, despite the power and speed that assures us the world's No. 1 player, along with her sister, has elevated the women's game to a whole new level.

Sorenstam, so far ahead of the LPGA pack, is not as automatically dismissed. In golf, the gap is easier to bridge. Can she win a PGA tournament? You want to say "no way." It is a bet safer than anything Pete Rose threw money at. Then you wonder: Could she hit the leader board, be among those final groups on Sunday?

More than making a political, sociological, cultural statement by accepting a sponsor's exemption to play in a PGA event, Sorenstam wants to make a personal statement. It would be a note to herself as an elite athlete in a position to be afforded a rare opportunity because of her unique skill, talent and domination on the women's tour.

That's why you can almost overlook the gender aspect. This quest by Sorenstam begs to be viewed the way Michael Jordan's quest to play professional baseball was viewed - as an inspiring foray into uncharted personal, athletic territory.

Good for the PGA, bad for the PGA - that debate seems small, secondary. This is a one-shot deal. Sorenstam's ultimate challenges are in the LPGA. More titles, more records. But who wouldn't want to see Sorenstam try this?

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