On Sept. 20, 1973, history was made and a culture was changed when Billy Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” tennis match played at the Astrodome in Houston.
Twenty years later, another woman will cross the gender line of sports when Annika Sorenstam becomes the first woman in more than 50 years to play in a tournament on the all-male PGA tour.
Unsurprisingly, Sorenstam’s participation has triggered a heated debate, with the accompanying media coverage raising the profile of the middle-ranking Bank of America Colonial tournament, which starts today.
“Hearing all the hype coming about because of it, I can’t believe it’s bad for golf,” USF men’s golf coach Jim Fee said. “There is going to be a ton of people watching it.”
USF’s women’s tennis coach Gigi Fernandez, who won 21 grand slam tennis doubles titles, is a friend of both Sorenstam and King. According to Fernandez, Sorenstam’s efforts are to prove that she is one of the top players in the world, whereas King’s mission was to prove that woman could be equal to, if not better than, men.
“I don’t think you can compare them,” Fernandez said. “I think what Billy did was champion women’s rights and equality by her putting women’s sports on the map, and Annika is trying to prove herself on a higher level.
“Annika doesn’t have an agenda. She really is trying to find a more competitive stage and a higher level,” Fernandez said. “And it is 2003, not the 1970’s when women had few opportunities. Billy was trying to prove women’s rights, Annika wants to play against better competition.”
Fernandez said the objections from some of the PGA golfers were prompted by the fear of losing to a woman. For this reason, the former tennis professional said she hopes Sorenstam can at least place in the top 20.
“I think that all the guys that are playing, their egos can’t handle her being in the tournament,” Fernandez said. “They would get a slap in the face. That’s what I would like to see.”
Sorenstam is playing in this tournament under an exemption from her sponsor Callaway Golf.
And the crossing of women into the PGA Tour won’t end with Sorenstam. In July, Suzy Whaley will participate in the Greater Hartford Open after winning a qualifying event.
If Sorenstam doesn’t do well, then many, including USF women’s golf coach Susan Holt, say it could hurt the LPGA Tour. And Holt thinks teeing it up with the men of the PGA is a mistake for Sorenstam.
“I don’t really agree with it, simply for that fact there’s a place for her to play,” Holt said. “I think her place is on the LPGA tour.”
Speculating on Sorenstam’s chances at the Colonial, Fernandez and Fee were both confident Sorenstam would not be humiliated.
“I think she might actually make the cut,” Fee said.
Holt’s view, however, differs from that of Fernandez and Fee, fearing that the media frenzy stirred up by her PGA debut will affect her play.
“I sure wouldn’t want to be in her shoes,” Holt said. “She has all of women’s golf following on her shoulders.”