Golfer challenges age-old attitudes
By Erik Brady
A second-tier golf tournament rivets the nation's attention this weekend. The reason is as old as Adam and Eve and as universal as man vs. woman.
Annika Sorenstam, the world's best female golfer, shot 71 yesterday in the Bank of America Colonial tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, where she became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in 58 years.
Sorenstam's 1-over-par score leaves her seven strokes back of leader Rory Sabbatini and with a reasonable chance of making the cut that comes after today's second round. She is tied for 73rd in the field of 113. Only those 70th or better, including ties, will play on. Even if she doesn't, this much seems certain: She won't finish last.
And there's the rub. The men who finish behind her could be ridiculed. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly suggested on NBC's "Today" show that "feminine hygiene products" might be left in their lockers.
What is it about male sports culture that equates ability with masculinity and losing to women with emasculation?
The broader culture is growing more comfortable with men and women competing in classrooms and boardrooms. It is growing more comfortable with the excellence of female athletes competing with one another.
But the idea of women competing against men in sports strikes a nerve as sharply as it did 30 years ago when Billie Jean King played a tennis match against Bobby Riggs. Their much-hyped meeting became symbolic of an era when the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX were new laws of the land.
"Most of this is cultural," says sports psychologist Deborah Graham, who works with PGA Tour players. "The players on the Tour have grown up with a comparison between the sexes that males are stronger, faster, bigger and they equate it to sports prowess."
Talk show hosts on sports radio have been burning the airwaves for weeks with predictions that Sorenstam would fail in the face of longer fairways and tighter pin placements. Michael Sullivan, 17, a golf fan from Granbury, Texas, watched Sorenstam yesterday at the Colonial and hoped she would fare badly: "They've got their tour and we've got ours. You don't see Tiger (Woods) playing the LPGA. I was hoping she would choke. (But) she did hit the ball well ... for a girl."
Mark Brooks, a former winner of the PGA Championship, one of men's golf's four major events, shot 72, one stroke behind Sorenstam. "If you want to know the truth, I played like a girl today a weak, feeble, little girl," Brooks said.
Boys today grow up in a world where their mothers work and their sisters play sports but where playing fields are still often home to the old rebukes that compare boys who perform poorly to girls.
"This goes right back to the coach saying, 'You throw like a girl,' " Harvard Medical School psychologist William Pollack says. "It is part of what I call the Boy Code: If you are not a 'real boy' in that stereotypical way, that gender straitjacketed way, you are called a girl."
Michael Gurian, author of "The Wonder of Boys," says all of this is not unique to western culture. "Every culture will tease and taunt a 10-year-old boy who gets beaten up by a 10-year-old girl," he says. "Boys will (then) use ritual humiliation. Boys have to prove their self-worth in a competitive arena. This is hard-wired into them, to be competitive with other boys."
On a weekend when the NBA and NHL playoffs, the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 normally would overshadow the Colonial, Sorenstam's presence puts it in the spotlight. Almost half of adult Americans are interested in the tournament, according to ESPN Sports Poll research. That's a higher level of interest than any golf tournament drew last year.
The reason begins and ends with Sorenstam, 32, who is to the LPGA what Woods is to the PGA Tour. USA, the cable network that televised yesterday's first round, followed her on every hole.
One of those watching from home was Julie Krone, the only female jockey in Thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame. She remembers what it was like to break into a field that was almost exclusively male.
"There's a lot of joking and teasing, like maybe you have an extra appendage down there," she says. "That's a compliment to me. There's a kind of locker room talk that helps everyone get along. To be included in that warms my heart in a way."
Krone once punched a male jockey after he hit her with a whip. She says her blood boiled when an agent once suggested a track in New Jersey might be too tough for her. She became a dominant rider there and later won the 1993 Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair. She remains the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.
Sarah Fisher, one of three women to compete in the Indy 500, will be in the race for the fourth time this weekend. Driver Greg Ray says that's fine by him.
"In this sport, it's about being in good condition, having good hand-eye coordination, and there's no difference there between a man or a woman," Ray says. "We're all competitors, times are changing and I certainly don't see any problem with it. If Sarah Fisher wins the race, she kicked 32 other drivers' butts, so she earned every bit of it. Certainly I'm cool with it."
Graham says she thinks some golfers are cool with competing against women, too.
"There is a group of players who actually welcome it. They see Annika's approach as wanting to test herself, much as they have felt throughout their professional careers. They have always wanted to play up, too. Many of them grew up with older brothers, and they wanted to meet that competition. It is easy for them to draw those comparisons."
Is that just political correctness or do a growing number of men and boys really welcome competition from top female athletes?
"All boys do not dislike losing to girls," says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "It depends on whether they're secure in who they are and have the ability to separate performance from self-worth."
Lopiano says she thinks attitudes are changing with the times as more boys grow up playing alongside girls in coed leagues for younger children: "There are more boys than you think who think it's OK to play with a girl and, win or lose, to be judged on the basis of skill."
Girls want to beat boys if they can, itself a sea change.
"We were absolutely taught: never beat a boy at anything. That was doom," says child psychologist Sylvia Rimm, author of "See Jane Win." "That meant no boy would ever want to have you as a girlfriend. Boys were taught to almost let a girl catch up and almost let her beat you at the end.
"Boys from many, many generations before have believed that they're superior to women and need to prove their superiority. They also envision themselves as protectors to women. 'Protectors' sounds virtuous and sensitive, but it implies superiority, that girls aren't strong enough. Physically we certainly have differences, but I think what has changed is the view that women can be much stronger than they were."
Sorenstam's place in the spotlight comes at a time when women are competing against men more and more. New Mexico kicker Katie Hnida played in the Las Vegas Bowl. Hayley Wickenheiser of Canada played hockey in a Finnish pro league. Rosemary Homeister Jr. rode in the Kentucky Derby. Shawna Robinson drove in a Winston Cup event, stock car's top tier.
Public humiliation at stake
For generations, men were seen as breadwinners, women as homemakers. Some men are bothered when their wives earn more money than they do. But University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz says losing in a physical competition is worse.
"It used to be quite painful to a husband to earn less than a wife, but that feeling is modified to the extent that the man benefits from the extra money," Schwartz says. "And it is a private act, not a public one. There is no need for others to know unless you say she earns more than you do. But being beaten by a woman in sports is a public humiliation. People are watching. It is reported in the paper."