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A Phantom Contest
It all ended in tears. It was bound to end in tears. Annika Sorenstam was either destined to tears of joy, tears of humiliation or tears of mirth as she made her way to the bank with her cheque from Cutter & Buck in one hand and that from Callaway in the other. Everyone was happy, the fading Colonial Tournament got a boost, the US Tour got coverage, the TV ratings surpassed even a Tiger Woods appearance and the crowds of spectators was heart warming for the sponsors, The Bank of America.

Cutter & Buck, Callaway and all of the others contributing logos to the Sorenstam torso were delighted by the exposure. The game itself got a fillip for unprecedented numbers turned up to gawp at the circus and people to whom golf was hitherto an anathema tuned their TV sets to the sports channel to see the spectacle.

Such was the hype and hysteria surrounding this non-event that it will doubtless form the basis of media studies courses throughout collegiate America for years to come. All of the basic ingredients were there. Sorenstam is the best woman golfer in the world and here she was prepared to lay it on the line with the best, or at least the second string best of the men. Her game is good by any standards, she is petite and feminine, even pretty in a Scandinavian shop assistant sort of way, and, most importantly, she is prepared to present herself in the style that Fifth Avenue perceives women dress on the golf course.

All of the ingredients were there for the marketing event of the year. It required only IMG to put the whole package together and for the punters of the world to comply and gawp. It wouldn't have worked at all had she been big, bad and butch.

Annika Sorenstam was not the first woman to take on a man on a level playing field. Cecilia Leitch did that in 1910 when she played Harold Hilton at Walton Heath and Sunningdale in a 72 holer that drew great crowds and even greater scrutiny. But that was a worthy match for it was designed to test Hilton's theory that the then difference between a woman's and a man's game was nine strokes a round.

He gave her these odds at both venues and although she won the day on the last green the difference between them was 36 strokes, vindicating Hilton's calculation and Leitche's class for Harold was the Tiger of his day.

Babe Zacharias took on the men in 1945 in a men's Tour event under conditions similar to those that we have just seen at Fort Worth. The event was well hyped and the gate money, in which the Babe had a cut, was stupendous. Zacharias was a magnificent all round athlete whose detractors insisted that she had been born a man. Like Leitch before her and Sorenstam after her, she was by far and away the best lady golfer of her time, but like Sorenstam she failed to make the cut, much to the satisfaction of the entire red necked American male population of America. Unlike Sorenstam, however, her name was already a household word and the outcome started the end of her career.

The charade of the Colonial will not end Sorenstam's career; indeed, it will propel her into the super-earner category. Not that she is short of a bob or two after winning 13 times on the lucrative woman's Tour last year alone. But that date in Texas will take her into a new earnings bracket altogether. In just a few well worked weeks in the media she has gone from Annika Whats-Her-Name to the really, really wonderful Annika Sorenstam.

Chat show hosts and men's magazines will be standing in line for her attentions.

After all the press inches of debate on whether or not she hit the ball far enough or whether her putting was up to it, the outcome was something of a letdown. Indeed, it must have been depressing for those of a romantic turn of mind. But the whole event must have been even more depressing for the sponsors of serious sporting events taking place throughout the world last weekend. TV stations rescheduled their coverage to accommodate the correctly perceived demands of their viewers. The press tent at the Volvo PGA at Wentworth was almost deserted and those that were there were busy trying to re-tune the TV for Sky and coverage of the events in Fort Worth. It mattered not that some of the best and closely contested golf was being played on the fairways of a proper course just outside the tent door, all of the interest was on the Colonial because a woman was competing against men.

The world's press, pundits and punters fell for it to a man - and woman - and it proved to be no more or less that was expected. It went off like a damp squib and no matter how it is dressed up it was simply unintersting.

Annika Sorenstam may have fulfilled a dream and she may very well have enjoyed the experience for the accolade she received was stupendous. But what has she achieved? Has she contributed to the breakdown of the gender divide, made a mark for womankind, shown that a woman is every bit as good as a man? I doubt it.

She has been exploited in the nicest possible way just as she herself has taken the opportunity to exploit the situation that she found herself in and it was all bloody good fun to boot.

©    26 - MAY 2003

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