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Sorenstam Came to Play, Not Pioneer

Competing in a male domain is simply the next level, she and other women say.

May 22, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

When Annika Sorenstam tees off against the men early today, it will mark a rare event in golf, but not for women in sports.

Sorenstam is competing in the Colonial, a men's PGA Tour event in Fort Worth, 58 years after Babe Didrikson Zaharias became the last woman to compete in such an event.

Just in the last few months, women have played professional hockey in Finland, pro lacrosse in the U.S., and attempted an extra point in a major-college football game.

A 13-year-old girl played golf against men in the Hawaii Pearl Open -- not a tour stop, but still a good-sized tournament.

Two weeks ago, jockey Rosemary Homeister Jr. rode Supah Blitz in the Kentucky Derby. And this week, Sarah Fisher is trying to soup up the car in which she has qualified to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Today, the USA Network will show every shot Sorenstam makes, and nearly 600 media credentials have been issued so that most every national, local, late-night and morning-show reporter can chronicle what some have cast as sport's latest battle of the sexes.

Only when Sorenstam pulls back to strike the ball, she says she won't be out to strike a blow for women.

As is the case with many women who challenge men, Sorenstam says she is not out to level a playing field or call attention to an inequity. She goes right along with experts who say there are physiological reasons why women will never have the strength or speed to successfully compete with men in most sports.

She is doing this to measure herself because it is a logical next step.

Sorenstam, 32, won 13 of the 25 women's tournaments in which she participated last year, and she is the only woman who has shot a round of better than 60 in competition. So at the end of last season, she started training with the goal of becoming a physically stronger, more muscular athlete to see just how good she could be.

Which brings her to today, when she'll be hitting from the men's tees, against some of the best male golfers in the world, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with gender.

"I'm trying to take my game to a different level and I think this will help me," Sorenstam said. "I'm not trying to play on the PGA Tour. We all know that guys are bigger and stronger. That's why we started the LPGA, so we could have a tour for ladies."

How Sorenstam will fare has been the topic of great debate. Las Vegas has set betting lines for her score, whether she'll make the 36-hole cut and, for longshot lovers, has odds on her to win (500-to-1 as of Wednesday afternoon).

The other women in other sports have experienced, at best, moderate success. The hockey player scored a goal; the lacrosse player, a goalie, saw 13 shots and stopped seven; the kicker missed; Michelle Wie, the golfer, finished 47th in a field of 96; Homeister's horse came across 13th in the Derby.

None dominated the men. None set out to.

"What I did wasn't some kind of judgment about women's sport," said Hayley Wickenheiser, the Canadian women's ice hockey star who played in a Finnish pro league. "It was about one individual trying to do well."

Ginny Capicchioni, the lacrosse player who was a standout for tiny Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said she tried out for the National Lacrosse League's New Jersey Storm because "it's hard to get noticed for the women's national team when you come from a small school. I hope to get better and get a name by playing with the men."

Some women don't have a choice. "Would I rather compete only against women?" asked Fisher, the race car driver. "I can't give you an honest answer because there's never been a women's racing series.

"I'm not out here to prove a woman can race against a man or beat a man. I'm not a big women's promoter and I don't necessarily believe all women can compete in this sport. I just know I started racing go-carts when I was 5 years old and this is what I love. So I do it in the only venue open to me."

That's how it's been.

Zaharias, undoubtedly, was a better all-around athlete than many of the men she teed off against nearly six decades ago. A gold-medal winner in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, she routinely beat boys in her youth when she played basketball and baseball. She taught herself to play golf because it was then the only sport where women could earn money.

Ann Meyers, an All-American basketball player at UCLA, was similarly gifted. She grew up in La Habra playing against her brother, David, who also went on to star in basketball at UCLA.

For three days of preseason camp with the Indiana Pacers in 1979, Meyers scrapped with veteran pros and other rookies trying to earn a place. More fundamentally sound than many of the men according to some coaches, she held her own but still didn't make the team.

Having been center stage, Meyers, now a television analyst for women's basketball, says she understands why Sorenstam has generated such interest.

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