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.
“This is a domain, women competing against men, that hasn’t been tampered with much, even now,” she said. “It’s still difficult for a lot of people to accept.”
Sorenstam as been criticized by some -- most notably by tour player Vijay Singh last week -- but most male athletes don’t seem to mind the occasional intrusion, given the right reasons.
Hockey player Wickenheiser, 24, said that while there was some initial resistance from her Finnish teammates, “once they saw how hard I worked, how willing I was to improve, I was pretty well accepted. But I did hear stuff from other teams about not wanting to get beat by a girl.”
Lacrosse player Capicchioni earned a spot as the No. 3 goalie on the Storm by surviving a tryout camp. Team captain Steve Sombrotto said she was at a disadvantage because of her size, 5 feet 4, “which leaves a lot more of the goal uncovered than most goalies.
“But Ginny showed she could play,” Sombrotto added. “I was as curious as anybody to see what she could do. She has the right attitude. She has the quickness. Could she be a starting goalie in this league? No. Not right now, probably not ever.
“Is she good enough to be a third goalie? I’ve played 12 years, I’ve seen a lot of third goalies. She’s good enough.”
In some sports there seems to be a closing of ranks between men and women. British marathoner Paula Radcliffe set a women’s record last fall of 2:15.25 -- only 11 minutes, 40 seconds slower than the men’s record, the smallest gap ever.
“Paula’s race was staggering to imagine,” said David Martin, a Georgia State University physiologist and medical director for USA Track and Field. “It was one of the superb athletic achievements of all time.”
However, Radcliffe’s feat is more likely an anomaly than a predictor of things to come, Martin said. There is a physiological reason that women have not -- and probably will not -- seriously challenge men in many sports.
“Men have a testosterone emphasis,” Martin said. “A 5-foot-6, 130-pound man will have more skeletal muscle than a 5-6, 130-pound woman.”
Testosterone translates into greater strength and quickness. It is the reason Lisa Leslie, even though she is 6-5, extremely skilled and a former most valuable player in the WNBA, even now, could not play in the NBA.
“I think it’s verging on ludicrous ... when I hear women talk of wanting to play football in the NFL or basketball in the NBA,” Martin said. “I laud their interest, but it is a bit of lunacy to think women can compete in men’s divisions in those kinds of professional sports.
“Even in golf, where it is hitting a ball, walking, hitting a ball, walking, you need endurance and strength and in strength, the woman will always be at a disadvantage.”
Which is not to say female athletes will always be less prominent.
Already, the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, are arguably the most famous tennis players in the world. And in figure skating, it’s female stars such as Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes who routinely prompt television ratings to soar to unprecedented heights. The same dynamic exists in Olympic gymnastics.
It’s just that for a physical challenge, the opportunity to measure themselves against men is likely to remain the ultimate test for women.
Wickenheiser, for example, didn’t play in the Finnish pro league hoping to catch on with a National Hockey League team. She wanted only to improve her skills before the next women’s World Cup and Olympic Games come around.
“I know what it takes to play at the NHL level, and for a woman to get to that level of physical speed and strength, I just think it would be really difficult,” Wickenheiser said.
Capicchioni, too, said she can’t imagine a woman being strong enough to play a position other than goalie in indoor lacrosse. But, she added, “I’m also not the person to say anything is impossible.
“There was a time when it was said African Americans couldn’t compete against Caucasians in many areas and that was proven wrong in every area,” she said. “So I don’t get these golfers who are out there saying Annika can’t do this, Annika can’t do that.
“Smart people are the ones who don’t say anything. God has a funny sense of humor. If Annika does bad, we’ll all know it. You won’t have to say anything. If she does good, we’ll be laughing at the guys who put her down.”
Said Meyers: “To me, Annika’s already a winner. She has challenged herself. Isn’t that what sports is about?
“I’m glad I took my opportunity. All I wanted was to play ball against the best. That’s all Annika wants to do. Good luck to her.”