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Annika's fan club: men too

Along the fairway, many fathers watch Sorenstam play and see hope for their daughters.

May 24, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

FORT WORTH — The fathers' reactions were the most striking. You might have thought that the male fans who descended on the PGA Tour's Bank of America Colonial tournament here would share the resentment expressed by some of the professional male golfers toward Annika Sorenstam, the best female golfer in the world.

After all, pro golfer Vijay Singh told reporters he hoped she missed the cut and said she didn't "belong" here. Another pro, Brian Kontak, threatened to sue the LPGA unless it let him play in the U.S. Women's Open. Many commentators predicted she would not be able to keep pace with the men. At least for the first day, they were wrong.

But in this steamy city nearly choked with an estimated 180,000 visitors, almost no resentment was visible toward Sorenstam. Instead, among male fans -- particularly those with daughters -- there was a palpable sense of what can only be described as paternal pride.

"If I didn't have 3- and 4-year-old girls, I might not feel this way," said Tom Hargrove, a 34-year-old land developer who made the four-hour drive up from Houston. On the eve of the Colonial, he kicked back in a local bar, drank two Bud Lights and examined a cigar he was saving for later. "But I want to get some things autographed and give them to my girls, so they learn not to be intimidated."

Sorenstam's tenacity and discipline have struck a chord with white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class men who've come to Fort Worth to watch the annual tournament. For them, Sorenstam's mission has resonated in a way it couldn't with other female athletes, such as tennis star Serena Williams or U.S. World Cup soccer champion Mia Hamm. You see, Sorenstam is really good at Dad's game.

Changing views

Fort Worth Realtor Phil Patton stepped along soggy wooden planks thrown over muddy patches and said Thursday his attitude toward Sorenstam had tempered.

"Initially my ego was opposed to it, and then I thought about the night of my daughter's birth, and how I promised she would have every opportunity I had," he said, clearing his throat as he remembered his now-23-year-old vow. "So, it would be hypocritical of me not to support her." Patton's daughter, Army Sgt. Amber Patton, has just returned to Ft. Hood, Texas, from a tour in Iraq, and he said his positive feelings toward Sorenstam, 32, were "unexpected" but have arrived as he's counting his blessings.

Sorenstam, at 5 feet, 6 inches, wearing a few pieces of gold jewelry, no makeup and a simple hairstyle, cuts the figure of a serious, understated jock. Her husband is her manager and sometime-caddie, and her father is involved in her career. She's not particularly charismatic or flashy, but she's the best female golfer, and even most would-be detractors said her victories last year -- 13 wins in 25 tournaments -- demand respect.

But not Singh. He's not playing the Colonial, saying he promised his wife he'd take a break after the last tournament.

"He's entitled to his opinion, but I'm disappointed he hid behind his wife's skirts," said Patton. In a sport where civility is king, anti-Singh spectators were the exception, not the rule. But they were restrained, in keeping with golf's decorum. John Harrell, 38, founder of a Web site that sells chicken hats (www.chick wore one of his products emblazoned with the word "Vijay" on the side. "Vijay's chicken," he said. "He's afraid to take on Annika."

Kimberly and Morgan Carris, identical 8-year-old twins from Enid, Okla., wore homemade T-shirts. "Singh a Different Tune Vijay," said Kimberly's shirt. On the back it read: "Vijay Singh's current earnings in '03: $2,929,642. Annika Sorenstam's current earnings in '03: $554,504. Watching Annika play with the Boys: Priceless."

And that's how it was with most women interviewed -- mostly, they rolled their eyes that gender was still an issue.

"I think men should just get over it," said Gloria Brock, 34, a self-employed general contractor. "I build houses. I've played some golf, too. Whatever."

Sorenstam's invitation to Colonial comes at the end of a year in which other women publicly pushed for more equality in golf. Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations demanded that Augusta National, which holds the Masters, admit women. Suzy Whaley qualified to play in the PGA Tour's Greater Hartford Open in July. And 13-year-old Michelle Wie will become the first female to compete on the PGA Tour's developmental circuit.

These trailblazing forays into a male-dominated sport are not coincidence, said Donna Lupiano, executive director of Womens' Sports Foundation, which was founded by Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King in 1974. (In 1973 King beat Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match in Houston that was billed as the Battle of the Sexes.) The inroads are directly related to Title IX, the 31-year-old federal law that bans discrimination in academics and athletics. Title IX created more opportunities for girls' sports teams at schools.

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