Naked ambition on the LPGA

Sandra Gal was one of three LPGA players to pose in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.

Christina Kim doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. So she’s standing in the middle of a golf course – in Canada – naked. So what? The important parts are obstructed.

“It’s the human body,” Kim said matter-of-factly. “Everyone has one.”

The always entertaining Kim wrapped herself in a white robe alongside Sandra Gal and Anna Grzebien last month at a photoshoot for ESPN The Magazine’s inaugural “Body Issue.” The shoot took place during the Canadian Women’s Open, and Kim concedes she got nervous when it was time to disrobe: “I’m not gonna lie.”

Any time women in the entertainment industry show excess skin, there are people who turn their noses up in disgust. Must women, they say – particularly athletes – rely on sex appeal.

The Body Issue is scheduled to hit newsstands this month, and in the meantime, ESPN has posted several pictures from the shoot online as well as video. There’s also a very eye-catching naked Serena Williams on one of the covers.

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Anna Grzebien at LPGA Q-School in 2008.

After perusing ESPN’s photo gallery, I didn’t have much shock though maybe a little awe. (Have you seen Dwight Howard’s arms?) Some of the shots resembled fashion-magazine ads for men’s cologne or high-end shoes. Not all were fully undressed. Frankly, I saw that much skin at the beach last weekend.

The video montage of photos features LPGA players in the buff positioned around a golf cart. (Grzebien behind the wheel, Gal sitting on the “hood’’ and Kim leaning against her golf bag on the back of the cart.)

“It is provocative,” Kim said, “but not in an elicit way.”

The 6-foot-1-inch Gal thought the three-hour shoot was tastefully done.

I can’t be the only woman in America who feels torn about this issue. Mainstream media has desensitized us to overt sexuality. ESPN says the purpose of this magazine is to celebrate the athlete’s body. (There’s even a sumo wrestler.) Fair enough, but it’s also a not-so-subtle attempt at raking in SI swimsuit-kind of dough.

Is this art? I’ll actually see more skin when I wander through the museums of Italy later this month.

“It’s showing off your athleticism,” Gal said. “I work very hard for my body. I love the sport that I do. You have to back it up on the golf course. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.”

In the video, hurdler Lolo Jones concedes that she asked her pastor whether she could still come to church on Sundays after taking part in the shoot. That’s funny. I asked my pastor via e-mail what he’d think if I wrote a column saying I don’t mind the Body Issue.

“Why don’t you mind, is the question you have to answer,” he replied. I missed his follow-up phone call.

When Gal, a German, first told her father about the issue, he said no. Gal Googled ESPN’s 2004 issue of nude Winter X Games athletes and felt more comfortable. A magazine owned by Walt Disney Co. couldn’t possibly ruin her career, could it? Eventually, dad agreed.

“I think Europe is a little more liberal,” she said.

It’s hard to say if this will, in any way, damage the careers of these LPGA players. It’s doubtful the tour itself will be hurt. Personally, this falls under the “Well, I wouldn’t do it” category (not that anyone asked). The photo spread won’t change my opinion of Kim, Gal or Grzebien. I’m not praising the idea but not condemning it, either.

A recent conversation with an LPGA insider helped shed light on why something like this is particularly risky for LPGA players. Sources confirmed that Natalie Gulbis and Anna Rawson turned down ESPN.

Unlike the Olympic athletes featured in the issue, golfers can have a decades-long career. One misstep can affect their ability to earn sponsorship dollars for years. And, let’s face it: There isn’t nearly as much money or wiggle room on the LPGA compared with a player like tennis’ Williams. She can afford to take risks.

For someone like Grzebien, who hasn’t had much ink since she won the NCAA Championship while playing for Duke, this might be her shining moment.

Jan Stephenson will forever be remembered for posing in a bathtub of golf balls. For a female golfer, this is one of those “comma moments” – descriptions that never fail to follow a player’s name even into retirement: Kim, who once posed nude in ESPN, etc., etc.

For Howard and Williams, however, it’s just another overexposed moment.

“We are in the 21st century,” Kim said in response to potential naysayers. “People should be allowed to choose what they want to do.”

And live with the consequences – good and bad.

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