Why Not Gender-Blind Golf Tournaments?

Ed CohenCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2010

CROMWELL, CT - JULY 24:  Suzy Whaley shakes hands with Anthony Painter after the first round of the Greater Hartford Open on July 24, 2003 at TPC at River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Can anyone tell me why the best women golfers cannot compete against the best men?

“Because they’re weaker, on average, than men,” sings the Conventional Wisdom Chorus. “Men can drive the ball farther, and that’s a big advantage on long holes and long courses, which are generally the rule on the PGA tour.”

The Chorus also tells me to examine the results from the cases of Whaley at Greater Hartford Open and Sorenstam at Colonial.

These refer to Suzy Whaley, a club pro from Connecticut who qualified for the Greater Hartford Open in 2003, and Annika Sorenstam, one of the greatest women golfers in history, who, that same year, qualified for the Bank of America Colonial tournament.

Whaley tied for 148th in a field of 156 at Hartford.

Sorenstam tied for 96th out of 113 in the Colonial.

“There you go,” sings the Chorus, smugly. “Women are just not good enough at golf.”

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The Chorus has apparently never actually set foot on a golf course.

If it had, it would have noticed that every hole has three sets of teeing-off points.  One, for professionals, is set back farthest from the hole. Another, the women’s tee, is nearest to the hole, and in between is the tee most men use.

Those tee locations adjust the length of the hole to account for the difference between male and female golfers and between ordinary males and golf professionals. Women, in general, can’t hit their shots as far as men, and the male pros hit the farthest of all.

However, if you watch elite women golfers you’ll notice that they are about as skilled as PGA pros at approach shots, chips, and putts. Which means women could easily compete against men if they were only allowed to tee-off from the women’s tees.

In fact, Suzy Whaley proved this point.

She gained entry into the Greater Hartford Open by beating all the men in a regional qualifying tournament, the 2002 Connecticut Section PGA Championship. And she did so by playing from the women’s tees. That made the course 10 percent shorter for her than for the men.

Since then the PGA has changed its rules. Now all entrants at qualifying tournaments have to play from the same tees.

Would a 10 percent distance discount have resulted in Sorenstam contending at or even winning the 2003 Colonial? Probably not, but maybe.

And this may be precisely what the male establishment is afraid of. Give women too great a handicap and the best LPGA players might dominate the bigger-money PGA Tour. But with no handicap at all, their participation—as Whaley and Sorenstam demonstrated—is a joke.

Why not seek a fair middle ground?

With a seemingly insatiable appetite for sports and realty shows on television, surely there’s room for a limited, gender-blind Anybody’s Golf Tour — no need to abolish the LPGA or PGA — or one could at least organize a single tournament to test the feasibility. Are you listening, Nike?

In case you missed it, and you probably did, the sports gender barrier was breached in a big way last week. The 45th Professional Bowlers Association Tournament of Champions, akin to the Masters in golf, was won by Kelly Kulick, a woman.

She became the first woman ever to win a top-level men’s bowling tournament. And she did it with no handicap whatsoever, rolling her ball down the same length lanes at the exact same pins as her male opponents. The only possible difference is she may have used a lighter ball than some of her opponents. PBA rules allow a range of 10 to 16 pounds.

Kulick once told ABC News, “The pins don’t recognize who is throwing the ball, whether it is a girl or a guy.”

The pins (flag sticks) on a golf course wouldn’t recognize who was hitting the ball at them either.

Golf, like bowling, is mostly a skills game. With the reasonable and long-established accommodation of separate tees, people of both genders could compete for the same prizes.


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