Barely a month after she won three consecutive major golf tournaments in 1998, there was hardly a ripple of interest beyond the sports pages in 22-year old South Korean Se Ri Pak’s powerful debut victories (Who? You ask. My point precisely.) In contrast with Tiger Woods’ electrifying debut victory in the Master’s the year before, the excitement over Se Ri Pak’s accomplishment quickly fizzled. (How many people have heard of Yani Tseng, the world’s current number one women’s pro golfer? I didn’t until yesterday, when I did some research for this blog.) Women’s golf remains today as it was in the beginning, a sluggish backwater of men’s golf. Power of course is one reason for this. They don’t hit as long. No distance, no charisma, no charisma, no media hype, no media hype, no big bucks TV contracts and corporate sponsors. (Interestingly, statistics show that they don’t putt as well, either.) But power is not the only reason. Something else prevents a woman, even if she could bust the ball like Bubba Watson, from becoming a walking corporation with a howling mob of worshippers at her feet.
Women professional golfers violate society’s stereotypes of what being a woman is. Though challenged, these stereotypes have by no means been overcome. A woman playing exactly like Bubba or Tiger Woods would provoke a discomfort that could only be resolved by applying the vocabulary of male athletes, which is itself derived from the tradition of the male hero, and essentially turning her into a male athlete. It happened with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was regarded by some as a gender freak.
Because a women’s heroic tradition doesn’t exist, it’s hard to package and brand woman professionals. The media and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) once tried things like “glamorous athlete seductress” and “high-jinxing devil-may-care reveler” (anyone remember “The Watusi Kid?”) But nothing played for long because woman’s golf simply doesn’t have an identity of its own. If you focus on glamour, what’s that have to do with golf? And if you focus on their prowess at golf it won’t work, because women pros score abysmally compared to men pros.
And then the old stereotype still has legs: what it means to be a man is to play sports, and what it means to be a woman is to not play sports. Peter Dobereiner thought that women’s golf is like a dog walking on its hind legs – by which he meant, I think I hope, unnatural.
The standard in golf is men’s golf and the ideal of golf is a man bringing his game to a pitch of perfection. Michelle Wie’s playing in a couple men’s tournaments and wanting to be the first woman to play in the Men’s Open and The Masters unintentionally confirms this: the essential way of being a professional golfer – for both women and men pros – is to be a male golfer. If you doubt that this is so, imagine what you would think if a professional male golfer wanted to enter a women’s professional tournament – say, Ernie Els entering the Women’s National Open. Then note the violence this does to your assumptions about men, about women, and about professional golf.