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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

She's Rooting for Women to Win

June 12, 2005|Johnette Howard | Newsday

This is nothing against rookie Indy car driver Danica Patrick. In many ways, she's the most fascinating athlete to hit the sports scene this year -- not just the most hyped. But when it comes to women athletes competing against men, as Patrick recently did at the Indy 500 or golfer Annika Sorenstam did last year at the Colonial, I have to be blunt: I want the women to kick butt already. I want them to win. BIG. I'm tired of seeing women athletes get pats on the head for doing well or coming close, as if, "Say, you're not so bad. For a girl."

It's been 32 years since Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs in their Battle of the Sexes match and -- no offense -- I'm tired of the Manon Rheaume-Janet Guthrie-Ann Meyers of the world who have come since. I hope I never see the Silver Bullet women's baseball team again. Bring me no more novelty act tryouts or extra-point kickers or women just happy to be in the race. I'm old enough to have seen firsthand how far women have come in sports the last four decades. Yet a part of me still can't help thinking, "So?" Why not demand more?

We already know that some women athletes can beat a lot of male athletes some of the time, even all of the time, in certain sports. But I want more athletes like jockey Julie Krone, the first woman to win a Triple Crown race. I want all those WNBA and female college basketball players who dunk in layup lines but not in games because they say they're afraid they'll miss to start throwing it down and quit making excuses.

I want someone like Patrick to get irritated and trade paint with some other driver at 225 mph for even thinking that she's just a cute little marketing gimmick to have around. I want the other LPGA players to do whatever it takes to reel in Sorenstam instead of paying so much homage to her.

As Pia Nilsson, Sorenstam's close friend and former coach on the Swedish national team, said in an interview from Sweden Thursday: Other LPGA players are intimidated by Sorenstam "quite a bit. They know that they need to play exceptionally well for four days, and that she never gives up. She can win from behind, from being ahead, any which way. She also keeps saying that she can get better, and she acts accordingly. She believes that she can shoot 54 and win all the majors."

Yes, but while I'm at this, I want Sorenstam to quit being so gosh-darn nice and stop her almost apologetic stance that her appearance at the Colonial, where she missed the cut by a few strokes, was a one-time thing, or just a way to learn more about her game. If learning was the point, why stop at one tournament or at the occasional co-ed Skins game? Why not show up at more PGA events?

I'll personally get her a hat that says, "Vijay Who?"

Sorenstam, who Thursday began her hunt for the second leg of a calendar-year Grand Slam at the LPGA Championships near Baltimore, has obliterated the women's tour this year. She's currently unspooling one of the most amazing runs by any athlete in any sport, ever. In her 37 tournaments since the Colonial, Sorenstam has won 18. She's won five of the seven tournaments she's entered in 2005 and finished second in the other two. She's on the way to having the sort of year reminiscent of Martina Navratilova's 86-1 romp through tennis in 1983.

So why not expect more of Sorenstam than nearly making the cut at the Colonial?

To me, the best thing about Patrick and Sorenstam is they really, truly aren't interested in such moral victories or the novelty aspect of competing with men. Sorenstam didn't just give lip service to using the Colonial to take measure of herself. After playing there, she realized she needed to drastically improve her short game and sought help (some of it from Tiger Woods). She now credits that change for her staggering success since.

And Patrick? She posted the fastest time in qualifying or practice for the Indy 500 at 229.880 mph. She nearly became the first woman to win the pole position, too. Before the race she told reporters, "I'm going to go out there and prove to you time and again that I belong here, that I will race up front, and that I'm a great driver and not just driving for a great team."

Then Patrick went out and led the race for 19 laps, losing the lead for the final time with just seven laps to go. She finished fourth overall -- the best ever for a woman at Indy. Last week she made the cover of Sports Illustrated, something Sorenstam never has done.

Pretty good, right?

"I wanted to win," Patrick fumed.

Perfect.

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