Is Women’s Professional Golf Worth Watching?

 

This is a very delicate topic, but my sponsors insist I do something controversial from time to time, so, here goes:  I like to watch women’s professional golf on TV.

I am fully aware that, for most American men, this is roughly equivalent to acknowledging a taste for escargot at French restaurants, soccer matches that do not involve one’s own children or grandchildren, Saturday afternoons spent strolling through an enclosed shopping mall, or explanations of the exclusions under one’s healthcare insurance.  In other words, I approach the topic gingerly.  Anyway, here are the reasons why I like women’s pro golf:

  • I regularly play golf at a club that has six courses and more than 3,000 members, most of whom are avid golfers and a very large portion of whom have single-digit handicaps – i.e., they regularly shoot in the 70s (or better) – and it is my impression that, with the exception of a couple dozen young males who have not yet worn out their fast-twitch muscles and can hit it out there with the Keegan Bradley set, there is not a single member who can regularly hit the ball as far as women’s world #1 Yani Tseng or Brittany (“Bam Bam”) Lincicome.  The best male golfers at my course can only dream of regularly outdriving Lincicome or Tseng.
  • For that matter, while the diminutive Ms.Tseng averages 275 yards off the tee and the sturdy Ms. Lincicome averages 283, there are a great many other lady pros who average at least 265 off the tee.   From the websites of the respective tours, Ms. Lincicome is longer than 30% of all the men on the PGA tour (including Majors-winners Graeme McDowell, David Duval, Zack Johnson, and Shaun Micheel), Ms. Tseng is longer than men’s current world #1 Luke Donald, and there are two dozen other female pros who are longer than, say, David Toms (PGA Championship winner) and Chris Dimarco (27th on the all-time career-winnings list for the PGA).  As for the men’s senior tour (the “Champions Tour”), don’t even ask; Ms. Lincicome would be 8th longest on the senior tour, longer than 72 men, and each of the top 15 LPGA women is longer than 50% of the senior men.
  • As evident from these statistics, the women, who are doing it with technique and fitness rather than size or strength, have phenomenally good swing-mechanics, rhythm, and overall skills – very instructive to watch.
  • As for the short game, the women, though historically quite a bit worse than the men, have added lots of finesse and are now, on average, only about one stroke-per-round worse than the men at pitching, chipping, and putting.
  • As for overall shot-making skills, for which no statistics are available (or possible), it would be hard to argue that the women can spin the ball (backwards or sideways) as effectively as the men, yet anyone who has watched the changes in the women’s game over the last 10 years would have to have noticed the remarkable extent to which the women have closed the gap in terms of playing the complete game.

The women’s game, despite outstanding champions such as Babe Zaharias, Mickey Wright,  Nancy Lopez, and Annika Sorenstam, was never a high-profile game until Ms. Sorenstam played in a men’s tour event in 2003 and, despite missing the cut, played well enough to attract a new level of attention.  Through the lean years, the tour made sporadic efforts at glamorizing a few players, but the public wasn’t sold – the overall quality of the golf was not good enough.  All that started to change when South Korean Se Ri Pak broke through and won her first women’s major in 1997 and began a remarkable 8-year run that brought big-time women’s golf to Asia and brought Asian women to big-time women’s golf.

The LPGA has stumbled in its efforts to exploit the successes of the Asian women (not to mention women from virtually the entire rest of the world), and still appears torn over whether to market the women’s sport on the basis of sex appeal; it is hard not to notice how much TV time is given to the women whom the LPGA or the TV networks apparently view as attractive  – e.g., the permanent prodigy Michelle Wie, the cantilevered Natalie Gulbis, the always pinkish Paula Creamer, or the Scandinavian or French pastry of the moment.  (A tart?  A golf tart?)   The demure Stacy Lewis,  currently world #4 on this year’s LPGA money list and, by a wide margin, the best American player of the latest 2 years, is on-camera when she is in the lead or near it, but lesser players such as Morgan Pressel, Christie Kerr, and Wie, Gulbis, Creamer, etc., are bound to be shown even if they are not in contention.   It appears that the LPGA, the Golf Channel, and the major networks are only gradually coming around  to the view that golf viewers mainly just want to see good golf.

Another problem is the TV commentators themselves.  Historically, women’s golf announcers regularly embarrassed themselves by their attempts at glossing-over mistakes by the players.  Except for occasional appearances by Johnny Miller or Dottie Pepper, no outspoken candor in that cheer-leading crowd; the commentators would blame the weather, the course, the crowd, the caddy, anything at all, in order to avoid mentioning that the player hit a poor shot.  Things have improved a bit lately, but not a lot; it is still grating to hear commentators such as Jane Crafter explain that a putt was missed because the player must have either hit it too hard or hit it off line (such insight!), or tell us as she did last week that the tournament winner,  Ms. Lewis, could win again but must first improve her iron play and her putting – this at the conclusion of an event in which Ms. Lewis led the field in GIR and 3-putted only twice in 72 holes.   [I am guessing that the networks take Ms. Crafter’s accent to be English rather than Australian, and think that anyone with that accent must be smart.  Or classy.  Or something.]

Notwithstanding these minor irritants, I love to watch the women play.  For one thing, it is fun to see great players who play from the regular men’s tees instead of 7,500 yards and who hit the ball distances to which I can relate.  At this point in the annoying but presumably inexorable decline in my own skills, I find odd comfort in the notion that I can still bang it out there with Morgan Pressel, even though I need a 5-iron to reach a green that Yani Tseng reaches with a gap-wedge.   Granted, the spectacle of gifted performers performing at the highest level of their craft, whether the subject is athletics or the arts, is inspiring and gratifying and perhaps even edifying, which would suggest that the best male golfers present a better spectacle than the best female golfers, but there is also something to be said for the notion of accessibility:  sometimes it is easier to find inspiration in something that we can at least imagine ourselves doing.

 

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