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THE INSIDE TRACK | DIANE PUCIN

Golf's Best Woman Player Deserves Greater Respect

April 13, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

When Annika Sorenstam teed off at noon Thursday to start her first round at the LPGA Office Depot Hosted by Amy Alcott, there were about 50 people in the gallery.

Sorenstam, who has made history once this season by shooting a round of 59 and who is aiming to make more history this week by becoming only the third woman golfer to win four consecutive tournaments, played with defending champion Grace Park and tournament host and Hall of Famer Alcott.

About 30 of the spectators who came to the first tee when Sorenstam took her stance were of Korean descent. Those 30 may have been walking with Sorenstam, but they had come to Wilshire Country Club to cheer for Park, a Korean who played at Arizona State but who wears a logo for Ewha Women's University of Korea.

Ten or 12 others were friends and family of Alcott. Alcott lives in Santa Monica and has created a $50,000 endowment for UCLA Children's Hospital.

Which means that maybe 10 people--nine strangers once you subtract Sorenstam's husband, David Esch--came to watch Ms. 59.

Sorenstam won all three LPGA tournaments played in March. She became the first woman to shoot a competitive round of 59. She won the season's first major, the Nabisco Championship. She was 57 under par in those three tournaments.

And after a two-week LPGA schedule break, Sorenstam comes back and plays mostly in front of Park's fans.

Sorenstam is too polite to ask but, hey, what's up with that?

"I wish more people would watch. I expected more people because the Senior Tour plays here and it is an old traditional course," Sorenstam says after shooting an opening round of one-under 71, which leaves her four shots behind leader Pat Hurst.

"But also, it's a Thursday," Sorenstam says, kindly making excuses for the lack of interest. "I know the parking is a little difficult. But we hope to get more people out. You don't see someone who shoots a 59 every day."

No, you don't.

Sorenstam also excused the lack of fans by saying that her husband noted how difficult it was to walk the course. Fans had to do a lot of weaving and retracing of steps because of where the ropes were placed.

Sorenstam was kind enough not to mention that missing in action were volunteers with each group carrying a scoreboard with the names of the golfers and their scores. Fans were straining to see the backs of caddies just to figure out which golfers they were watching. And then it was a game trying to figure out the score. "Did Sorenstam bogey 16?" "Did Sorenstam birdie 14?"

If you want to look for signs that women's professional golf is not respected, then you'll want to take note that groundskeepers were out mowing the 15th green while there were still several groups on the course.

And when Sorenstam's threesome walked up toward the ninth green, her caddie tried to silence three yapping, yelping dogs who were in their yard, about 15 feet from the fairway. If Tiger Woods were coming up the ninth, want to bet somebody involved with the tournament would have figured out how to have course neighbors muzzle their dogs?

OK, and while we're complaining, this tournament got aced out of a Sunday finish because the country club couldn't cancel its Easter egg hunt.

So if Sorenstam does join Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth as the only women to win four consecutively scheduled events, many people won't notice. They'll be expecting the tournament to finish on Sunday, not Saturday.

Let's not hit people over the head with this, but Sorenstam is having a marvelous, historic golf season. She might be worth watching. She isn't Tiger Woods and doesn't expect Tigeresque adoration.

"Tiger does get a lot of attention," she says, "but I am not playing on his level. I haven't won four majors in a row. The LPGA doesn't get the same amount of coverage as the PGA, so I can't expect as many people to know what I've done."

Maybe not as many, but some would be nice.

Esch says that he kind of understands what's happening. His wife might be having a miracle season. But she's a woman. "And women's sports is still a hard sell," he says. "Look, I'll admit it. I never paid attention to women's sports much. Growing up I didn't notice the discrepancies and the lack of respect women get in many ways. It can be discouraging for Annika at times.

"What she did, shooting a 59, that is something that will last forever. I've come to accept that Annika won't get the credit she deserves for that, but I haven't come to accept that it's right or fair."

Sorenstam had just left the scorers' tent and was accompanied by an LPGA public relations person and five autograph seekers while Esch was speaking.

At least Sorenstam was better off than the second-to-last group on the course, which included Kristi Albers, who finished only two shots off the lead. No one was following the group. No one could get Albers' score when she was at the 17th hole.

"Annika is one of the finest athletes in the world," Alcott says, "and there was hardly a story about her in the Los Angeles media coming into this tournament. Is that fair? No."

As Sorenstam played, most of the members of her gallery would take off running to the next hole as soon as Park putted out. Even while Sorenstam was still finishing.

Sorenstam would just look up at the bustle, then look down and finish putting. Sorenstam is no diva. She's only the best woman's golfer in the world.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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