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Diane Pucin

Clothes Call Good for LPGA

April 05, 2002|Diane Pucin

Annika Sorenstam wore ruby-red slippers last weekend, golf shoes that seemed created for Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." Sorenstam clicked those heels and won the LPGA's first major of the season, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Everybody noticed Sorenstam's shoes. They glittered on the TV set. The sun bounced off them and the shoes sparkled. Sorenstam seemed surprised at the notice her shoes had received. She is, after all, in the prime of her athletic career, 31 years old and winner of 10 tournaments in the last two seasons, winner of this year's first major, biggest name at this week's Office Depot Championship at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana.

And hardly anybody pays attention to Sorenstam and her golf. But the shoes? Those were cool.

The timing of Sorenstam's red shoe victory couldn't have been better for the LPGA. There is a big deal being made of a new initiative by the women's golf tour urging its players to pay as much attention to clothes and hair and appearance and personality as to their performance.

In a world that will never exist, an athlete--male or female--would be adored, revered, admired, appreciated for only his or her performance on the field.

We aren't in that world. It matters how we look, act and perform.

Jack Nicklaus was once an overweight, double-chinned golfer who wore bad clothes and a bad crew cut. He was a winner too, but not very popular. Not with the fans, not with the sponsors.

Then Nicklaus lost weight. He grew his hair. He was still a winner, but he was also popular, a worldwide star, a gallery draw.

If Tiger Woods weighed 250 pounds, if Woods looked more like Craig Stadler or had the grumpy personality of Colin Montgomerie, would he still be an international icon?

Woods has a body for clothes, a smile for photos, a swing for the ages, the ethnicity for the 21st century. And he wins. It's a package, all of it, in perfect confluence.

The LPGA is right to be concerned about the packaging of its product.

Nancy Lopez was once Tiger Woods. She charmed the country two decades ago with a sweet smile and a wicked golf swing. She came from an unprivileged background and she never let it hold her back. She did not have the body of a model or the skin color of the majority, but it didn't matter. Lopez made fans smile, made them happy to be in her gallery. And she won. It was a package.

No female golfer has become a household name in the U.S. since Lopez. And that's not because there is inherent bias against female athletes.

Tennis has had Steffi Graf and Jennifer Capriati (then and now), Anna Kournikova, Venus and Serena Williams and Martina Hingis. All of them have been marketable and popular in very different ways.

Women's soccer produced Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain. Women's basketball has Rebecca Lobo and Chamique Holdsclaw. Dr. Dot Richardson became famous because of softball and not her medical degree and she was never anything but a jock, never dressed up in fancy clothes or made up with fancy cosmetics.

Sorenstam hasn't caught on, not because she isn't somehow attractive enough. But because she's boring.


Ask Pete Sampras. Until now, when he's over 30 and considered a has-been, and therefore an underdog and someone to be rooted for out of pity as much as appreciation, Sampras was Sorenstam.

He was fabulously talented, unfailingly polite, overwhelmingly dominant and mostly ignored. Sampras would privately fret about why he wasn't on a Sports Illustrated cover or the lead story on "SportsCenter" after another record-setting win. Why, he would wonder, isn't being a winner enough?

Because it's not. It just isn't.

When the female golfers and tour officials met and decided that it is no sin for golfers to wear a little makeup, some nice clothes, a friendly smile, to be willing to sign autographs and share with the public some of themselves, some of their feelings and more of their private thoughts, this was a good idea.

If it seems somehow anti-feminist to worry about looks or personality rather than athletic performance alone, it's not.

Talking long and loud about the unfairness of it all, claiming that men don't have to worry about such things, that no one expects Woods to do anything but hit a ball or Kevin Brown to do anything but pitch a ball or Shaquille O'Neal to do anything but dunk a ball, is both a waste of time and wrong.

Despite a report in a London tabloid that Adidas was ordering Kournikova to start winning tournaments or it would end its marketing relationship with its winless tennis star, nothing of that sort is going to happen.

Adidas spokespeople couldn't yell loudly or quickly enough that the athletic apparel company has no intention of dropping Kournikova.

Because if it did, Nike would be on the phone in a minute and offering Kournikova a prominent spot on its campus.

That's how it works.

Last Sunday's Kraft Nabisco broadcast got the highest TV rating for the event since 1994 and had an 83% improvement over a year ago. Was it Sorenstam's red shoes? Was it the buzz about athletes trying to become fan friendly? We all do what's needed to survive. Women's golf wants to survive.

Whatever it takes, looking good, looking fans in the eye, making them look back, do it.


Diane Pucin can be reached at

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