PINEHURST, N.C. – The men moved out of Pinehurst, and now the women take center stage in golf. On a national sports landscape that already is overwhelmed with content, the U.S. Women’s Open is a welcome moment for the women to establish more of a presence. The players can feel what it means.
Michelle Wie, a winner on the LPGA tour this year and the No. 11 player in the Rolex Rankings, arrived here Sunday with two dozen of her female golfing colleagues to take in the scene at the famed Pinehurst No. 2 Course and follow the men for the last round of their U.S. Open. As she toured the course, she saw what happens when 55,000 fans line the ropes and fill the stands. It’s the feeling you have when you realize what’s possible.
“I watched the guys play,” Wie said, “and just kind of walking up on 18, seeing Martin Kaymer win. And I was . . . talking to (Jessica) Korda and I looked to the left briefly and I was like, whoa, this is amazing . . . this is unbelievable. And we both got goose bumps in our skin. I’m getting chills right now thinking about it. So it was really cool. We’re definitely making history here.”
Here’s hoping they succeed and that the sports media take notice. For all the saturation coverage of ESPN and its subsidiary channels, as well as network sports, golf is largely relegated to second-tier coverage, and then only during majors. Football dominates year round, not only on TV but also on sports-talk radio. Men’s golf makes the crawl at the bottom of the screen on TV news, except for the majors. But the women’s game doesn’t even merit that, and only rarely breaks through for the occasional report. If it were not for Golf Channel and a few dedicated news outlets and websites, you’d think women’s golf hardly existed.
It’s the same for almost all of women’s professional sports – the notable exception being tennis. There, it helps to have the majors played not back-to-back as at Pinehurst this week but simultaneously. Having the international press on hand for those two weeks of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open ensures virtually equal coverage. Not so for the WNBA, which plays during the NBA’s off-season. And certainly not for women’s golf, in which the stars get amazingly short shrift.
During the decade-plus of her LPGA dominance, Annika Sorenstam never once was featured solo on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Michael Jordan made it 57 times; Jack Nicklaus 24.) And golf’s own indigenous journalism has not exactly been helpful. Thus the uproar after Golf Digest tried to appeal to a younger audience by featuring avocational golf celebrities on successive covers: Paulina Gretzky in May and Jimmy Fallon in June. The last female professional golfer featured on its cover was Lorena Ochoa in August 2008.
Breaking through normal expectations is hard for any enterprise. For all the airtime devoted to sports radio, precious little of it, if any, concerns women’s sports. Such national figures as Colin Cowherd (ESPN Radio) and Mike Francesa (WFAN-AM New York) have shown no interest in women’s golf. If they don’t exactly set the pace in audience values, they certainly reflect and pander to existing sports tastes. The success of World Cup soccer might force them to cede some ground to shifts in audience preferences. But it’s that kind of dominance – what folks in cultural studies call hegemony – that presents such a covert code of silence with respect to women’s sports generally and women’s golf in particular.
And yet women’s golf has reason to be optimistic. “Measurements are up,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. When he took over in 2010, the women’s tour had 23 events on its schedule. This year there are 33 tournaments. Over that time, total prize money has grown from $41.4 million to $58.1 million and hours of national TV coverage has risen from 205 to 350.
Staging their national championship at a prestigious classical venue such as Pinehurst No. 2 certainly helps the women gain credibility. Sure, the Women’s Open will invite direct comparison with the men. But the USGA has been working hard to make sure that while the women play the same layout to the same hole locations on greens that are putting the same speed, they’re also setting up tees for yardages that will allow the women to play pretty much the same kinds of approach shots with the same kinds of clubs. Whan is not alone in voicing hope for more such back-to-back championships. “I’d would like to see more doubleheaders,” he said.
But he might be alone in his straightforward, business-like approach to what the USGA means for the LPGA and women’s golf. He is fond of saying that the USGA is “our largest title sponsor.”
The traditional blue bloods who run golf in this country might blanch at such a designation. But they are the largest sponsor of women’s golf’s most prestigious title, and they’ve blessed it this year with a pay hike: from $3.25 million last year to $4 million. And starting in 2018 at Shoal Creek (Ala.) Golf Club, the U.S. Women’s Open will be played two weeks before the U.S. Open. For a tournament that has been floating around on the calendar in recent years, anchoring it for that time will enable it to develop an identity of its own and a secure place on the American sports landscape. In which case, they won’t need another doubleheader.