Sorenstam's big shot still rolling for LPGA

Golf: The spotlight's glow hasn't faded since the tour star competed against the men a year ago.

Golf

May 20, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

A year ago this week, the world of golf was focused on a venerable country club on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas, and a player carving out a considerable legend.

Tiger Woods was nowhere near the Colonial Country Club for one of the PGA Tour's oldest events, but it didn't seem to matter.

Annika Sorenstam was.

The most dominant player on the LPGA Tour had accepted an invitation to become only the second woman to enter a PGA Tour event, 48 years after the legendary Babe Didrickson became the first.

Under intense media coverage inflamed by remarks from a few male players who questioned Sorenstam's presence - notably from Vijay Singh, who chose to skip the event rather than play with a woman - Sorenstam missed the cut, yet gained more respect than ever.

"It was just the greatest week ever," she said recently. "Golf-wise, it's the best week I've ever had."

It was certainly one of the best weeks the LPGA has ever had in sharing the spotlight, if not taking it away, from its male counterpart.

One year later, little seems to have changed for Sorenstam or the LPGA: She is still the best female player in the world and the women's tour is still searching to find a larger audience.

But LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said his tour benefited in many ways from Sorenstam's historic performance.

"It mattered a great deal," Votaw said during the LPGA Tour's recent stop in Williamsburg, Va. "Just the awareness level alone of women's golf as it related to her performance at Colonial was enormous.

"There's never been a golfer anywhere where a television network televised every single stroke of their play in a competitive round.

"Then winning her first two [LPGA] events after Colonial, completing the career Grand Slam later in the year, she accomplished what she set out to do, and that is to test herself against that level of competition, so when she came back on the LPGA Tour, she was a better player and even more dominant than before."

Sorenstam also became as recognizable a figure the LPGA has had since Nancy Lopez a quarter century before.

It didn't hurt that Sorenstam was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame later in the year and also qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

But has the visibility of women's golf grown?

LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, who covers both tours as a television analyst for ABC and ESPN, said earlier this week that however difficult it has been for the LPGA to sustain the kind of media attention that surrounded Sorenstam's appearance in the Colonial, the tour is still feeling a positive effect.

"I think there was so much attention given to it that it spilled over and then there was attention to the LPGA, so in that regard it's still pretty fresh in people's minds," Rankin said. "The attention she brought was good attention, and everyone applauds the way she dealt with everything."

Votaw has last year's figures for television ratings and hits on the LPGA's Web site burned into his brain.

"Our television viewership was up 19 percent on cable and 26 percent on network if you compare '03 to '01," Votaw said. "Our attendance is up over 14 percent. Our Web site traffic has increased 40 percent in terms of unique visitors. Our fan base is growing. Our sponsors are happier. Our fans are happier."

No sponsor change

Votaw points to the fact that, for the first time in a decade and only the second time in tour history, the LPGA didn't lose a single title sponsor from the previous year. One sponsor, International Sybase, increased its purse by $300,000 in this week's Sybase Classic and signed rising star Grace Park to represent the company.

Such success might not be entirely attributable to Sorenstam.

It might have even more to do with Michelle Wie.

The 14-year-old, 6-foot sensation from Hawaii has been causing a stir since winning last year's Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, and her profile has grown exponentially in the past few months.

In January, Wie outdid Sorenstam, at least statistically, by missing the cut at her first PGA Tour event, this year's Sony Open, by only one shot. In March, she finished fourth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major. Earlier this month, Wie tied for 12th in the Michelob Ultra Open in Williamsburg.

"This is a continuum; it's not a stair step," Votaw said. "Michelle is one part of that continuum story. Because of the fascination the public and the media have with her, she's a good part of that continuum, but I think she's only a part of the pipeline. Aree Song was a Michelle Wie before there was a Michelle Wie."

Song, 18, has become one of the tour's top players as a rookie. It's no surprise, because she finished in the top 10 at a major as a 13-year-old and made 11 of 14 cuts as an amateur.

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