2002: Golfweek Preferred - LPGA’s tale has too much Bashful, not enough Happy

The LPGA has received a raw deal for years and everyone knows it. But for all the natural prejudices faced by the ladies, there is one naughty little problem that long has been the tour’s secret shame. Let’s just be brave and call it for what it is, shall we?

It’s called shyness. A lot of the great players simply suffer from a mortal bashfulness. Media guys know this and often exchange heartbreaking stories about the players who, when confronted with an interview request, simply give the potential interlocutor The Look. It’s a kind of glassy, nodding smile that seems to say, “You want to ask me questions? Excuse me while I vaporize.”

There are, of course, several splendid talkers out there. I have played in LPGA pro-ams and always found them riotous good fun. If you ask a question of Lorie Kane, Helen Alfredsson, Kris Tschetter, among others, you better get set for an effusive

opinion or two. But for every cheerleader in the crowd, there also is a reclusive Greta Garbo. Some players are as outgoing as Afghani brides shrouded in their burqa veils. You wonder why they took up something as public as professional golf. They might have tried, for instance, spelunking.

Compounding the shyness problem is a reluctance at the networks to go too deeply into the LPGA. Tune in to the average broadcast and you hear little about the players’ performances. And of course you will hear zilch about the players’ lives.

Take the recent U.S. Women’s Open, which offered the thrilling spectacle of a fist-pumping Juli Inkster rising to thrash Annika Sorenstam. The golf alone, played over the estimable Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., provided exciting entertainment. But that’s what it was: golf alone.

Interested fans who read about the action in the Sunday paper and then tuned to the NBC broadcast had to wait a good long time before getting a serving of the full human drama.

I always thought the first rule of storytelling was to offer engaging character details near the beginning. If we get all intrigued about the people living out the drama, we’ll be inclined to stick around and listen. Since the Sunday broadcast opened with a few fast clips of Inkster burning up the front 9, we knew she was on fire. But it wasn’t until the show’s 95-minute mark that host Dan Hicks spilled any details about her. OK, she’s a famous player but not so famous that we couldn’t have been told earlier about her father being a baseball player, and about her life competing with her two brothers, and that she now balances having two children with little things like going for her seventh major.

Then came the thunderbolt out of the blue: She already had won a U.S. Women’s Amateur on this course in 1980 – two weeks after her wedding.

Having the always-entertaining Johnny Miller in the booth allows NBC lots of room to coast. He bristles with more fast lines than a week of Jay Leno monologues. Watching the pokey Jill McGill fumble a shot, Miller muttered, “She did the apple-bob over-the-top there.” And it’s always worth waiting for the line that you know he regrets saying even while the sentence is dying in his mouth. Showing how impressed he was that Inkster was winning a major at age 42, he blurted out that this is a time when women should be home baking.

Another area given a general brush-off by the networks is the subject of course management. NBC did offer a revealing look at how Sorenstam struggled with the difficult 12th, a 363-yard hole framed by two monstrous trees; they replayed her varied approaches to the hole over the first three days. That was fine, but revelations of that sort are oh so rare on an LPGA broadcast.

I suspect there are dozens of players in the LPGA who would love to have their stories told on the air. Although the tour’s ruling troika – Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak – are not what you would call bombastic bon vivants, there are plenty of real storytellers out there. The thoughtful, articulate Inkster, for instance, always has been very well regarded by reporters.

So what happens? She marches triumphantly off the course, signs her card and waits behind the clubhouse to see if Sorenstam, in the final group, can pull off a miracle. The NBC camera drives in close – so close you’d think they were doing a medical procedure. We’ve been watching her for almost three hours, let’s hear what she has to say!

So what does she do? She pulls out her cell phone and makes a call. The moment you want her, she’s not there. Oh, it was just a trifle symbolic.

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