(WOMENSENEWS)–When Annika Sorenstam teed off yesterday as the first woman in 58 years to play in a men’s pro golf tournament, she carried much more than her golf club. On Sorenstam’s shoulders sat the hopes of the struggling Ladies Professional Golf Association for recognition, the numerous commercial interests linked to her or the surrounding media event and–perhaps most important–the dreams of millions of girls and women around the world who saw yet another glass ceiling shattered.
Despite all that weight, Sorenstam sent her first shot squarely onto the fairway, then smiled, her body sagging in comic relief.
In case anyone still needs any introduction after all the media attention, Swedish-born Sorenstam, considered the best current player in women’s professional golf with 43 career LPGA victories and about $2.8 million in earnings last year, became the first woman since Babe Didrickson Zaharias in 1945 to play in a men’s tournament. She entered the PGA Tour’s Bank of America Colonial Golf Tournament in Fort Worth at the sponsor’s invitation.
Her Own Mount Everest
Persistently asked about the significance of her decision to play against the 113 men, Sorenstam repeated at a televised press conference this week, "I have said all along and I will say it again, that I’m just here to test myself . . . because I love challenges." She compared it to her own personal Mount Everest.
She said she would not have accepted the invitation "if I was trying to prove something here. There’s no way I would like to have all the women on my shoulders . . . That’s too much pressure." But, she added, "If I am a role model for little girls, little boys, men, ladies, whatever, that’s great."
That she sought a new challenge is understandable. Sorenstam shot 59 two years ago in Phoenix–no other woman has ever shot that low. (The score is based on how many shots it takes to play 18 holes, so the lower the better.) She set or matched 30 women’s golf records in 2001 and has already matched or broken 20 of them.
While Sorenstam denied the Colonial was a battle of the sexes, the event took on a life of its own. Some media compared it to Billie Jean King’s tennis match with Bobby Riggs in 1973.
"This is the largest sporting event that will happen this year," CBS golf producer Lance Barrow told the press. "We’ll be talking about this for years."
The USA network, expecting soaring ratings, made arrangements to cover her every golf shot on the first 36 holes Thursday and Friday. CBS, with full weekend coverage, added an hour to its Saturday schedule to review Sorenstam’s first two rounds. Nearly 600 journalists from around the globe were credentialed to cover the tournament, about twice as many as usual, and more than three times what Sorenstam said she is used to on the LPGA tour.
She Can’t Believe All the Attention
Asked by reporters what her biggest surprise was at the Colonial, she replied, "You guys. I am overwhelmed. I can’t believe all the attention . . . It’s bigger than my wedding day."
Laura Neal, LPGA manager of communications, said in a phone interview from the Colonial Country Club media center that Sorenstam’s play was a significant milestone for women’s golf. Neal said Sorenstam deserves all the attention, adding "in fact, I think she deserves it every week" as an LPGA champion.
Asked about the so-called battle of the sexes, Neal referred to a statement by LPGA Commissioner Ty M. Votaw, who said, "Regardless of what may be written in the weeks and months to come, this is about Annika challenging herself and breaking down barriers–never stopping in her quest to improve and test her abilities.
"This sends an empowering and inspiring message to young women and girls everywhere, to set new goals, to have no boundaries or limitations and to be the very best they can be," Votaw added.
Bob Combs, senior vice president for communications for the PGA Tour, said in a phone interview from the Colonial that his organization strongly supported Sorenstam’s entry, in part because of the extra attention it brought to professional golf.
"There are more spectators in general and more women spectators than usual," Combs added. "That exposure has to be good for both men’s and women’s golf."
Sorenstam’s play gave the PGA Tour a chance to display its gender fairness, after women’s rights activists heavily criticized it for sanctioning the Masters Tournament earlier this year. The Masters is played at the private Augusta National Golf Club, which does not allow women members.
Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations and leader of the Masters protest, said, in a telephone interview, that she thought the PGA Tour was "extremely hypocritical. The Masters is much more critical to women’s equity than one woman playing in one tournament."
Burk also said the Colonial’s sponsor, Bank of America, based in Charlotte, N.C., was profiting off Sorenstam’s participation and sending a message of equity, when in fact "their CFO is a member of Augusta National. They are using her to paper over their true policy." CFO is an abbreviation for chief financial officer.
Officials at Bank of America could not be reached immediately for comment.
Despite the PGA Tour’s support, some PGA players criticized Sorenstam’s decision. Most vocal was Vijay Singh, ranked seventh in the world, who said it was "ridiculous" for her to play the Colonial. He added that he hoped she missed the cut and that he would withdraw if he were paired with her. (Golfers are "paired" when they are placed in small groups to play each hole together.) He was not paired with her, but he withdrew from the tournament anyway, saying he simply wanted a break after winning his last tournament.
Defending Colonial champion Nick Price also criticized Sorenstam’s appearance, calling it a publicity stunt. But he later modified his stance, telling reporters, "She has a big heart. I’ll give her that. I don’t think I would be able to do (it)."
Support from Tiger Woods
Sorenstam said in her press conference that she had received great support from other players, both men and women, including several calls from Tiger Woods, who had not planned to play this tournament. She said Woods offered advice on how to handle "the madness."
Sorenstam was paired with rookies Aaron Barber and Dean Wilson, who wore a "Go Annika" pin during practice rounds. Both told the media they were excited to be playing with her, despite the intense media attention.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas put Sorenstam’s "over-under" score at 76.5, which means that bettors could wager that she would score higher or lower than 76.5 for 18 holes. Sorenstam dismissed the odds, saying, "I can do better than that." Her stated goal was to score around 70 each day in order to make the first cut and play into the weekend finals.
Vegas odds varied on Sorenstam’s chance to win the tournament, which no one really expected, peaking at 400 to 1.
The LPGA’s Votaw has said that regardless of how well Sorenstam performs at Colonial, her appearance will encourage female players. "Fans will be created by the fact that she has competed nobly and she has performed and expressed herself in the way that she has."
Sorenstam had her own definition of success: "In my mind, a successful week is if I can play the best golf that I know how."
Sue Reisinger is a freelance journalist and lawyer living in East Hampton, N.Y.