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Annika Sorenstam swings across a gender barrier

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2003


She strides down fairways with the pugnacity of a Marine drill sergeant, but speaks like a bashful ingénue.

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She can make a golf ball take off like a missile, descend with smart-bomb accuracy, and stick to greens like a velcro-covered marshmallow.

Her name is Annika Sorenstam and she is to women's golf what Tiger Woods is to the men's tour.

This week (May 22-25), she will be the first woman in 58 years to play in a men's professional tour event, at the Colonial Invitational, in Fort Worth, Texas. The Swedish-born golf sensation will do more than test the storied skills of the LPGA's best golfer against the best male golfers in the world.

She is setting off the biggest clash of gender and ego since Cleopatra rolled herself into a rug to get Egypt back from Caesar in 51 BC. Or at least since Billie Jean King whupped Bobby Riggs in tennis's over-hyped "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973.

There is good reason for both the hype and genuine interest. Sorenstam is the biggest name in women's golf and has won 19 LPGA tournaments in the past two years. Embodying long drives, a precision short game, and impeccable putting, Sorenstam's prowess has some male golfers quaking in their spikes that she might embarrass them on the links. Although Sorenstam says she just wants to improve her game, the subtext of her challenge is, quite simply: Can the best woman golfer seriously compete with men?

"They can't say it, but a lot of guys on the men's tour would like to morph their drivers into flyswatters and swat Annika Sorenstam like an ugly fly," says Randy Crusoe, a self-proclaimed golf fanatic following Sorenstam at the Takefuji Classic here April 15. "Now I know why: She's good!"

Last week, the No. 7-ranked men's golfer, Vijay Singh, made headlines when he told the Associated Press that Sorenstam "doesn't belong out here." Saying he would not play in the same group as Sorenstam, he questioned her motives.

"What is she going to prove by playing? It's ridiculous," said Singh, a two-time major winner. "She's the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasize, 'woman.' We have our tour for men, and they have their tour. She's taking a spot from someone in the field." (The Colonial is an invitational with limited participation. Sorenstam received one of eight sponsor's exemptions.)

Observers say more than just men versus women bragging rights are at stake.

With national debates raging over whether Title IX funds to women's college sports are decimating men's programs and the lack of female access to the all-male Augusta National Country Club, the 200-men-versus -one-woman tourney is expected to get the most nonsports press coverage for a coed sports event of this sort since the Riggs vs. King tennis game.

"This match has several value-added components that will help it dominate the front pages," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "People who care nothing about golf will be watching it as a referendum for these other issues. Whether it makes sense to do so or not, it's going to be great fun."

The male-dominated world of Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer, and Woods is certainly gearing up for a combination of "Century Battle of the Sexes" meets "Fear Factor."

"This is creating a huge stir in golf," says Carl Seelman, head golf pro at Las Vegas Country Club, where Sorenstam competed in April's Takefuji Classic. "It's going to be interesting to see how the men react to her. Especially if she beats any of them."