Bold strategy on gender is the only play for golf

European Tour and Ladies European Tour planning joint tournament in May

Jordan Spieth and Lexi Thompson as 14 year olds during the Fourball Matches of the Junior Ryder Cup at The Club at Olde Stone in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/PGA of America via Getty Images

Jordan Spieth and Lexi Thompson as 14 year olds during the Fourball Matches of the Junior Ryder Cup at The Club at Olde Stone in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/PGA of America via Getty Images

 

Lexi Thompson and Jordan Spieth represented the United States as teenagers in a mixed fourball match at the 2008 Junior Ryder Cup. As Spieth remembered it, Thompson carried the pair. He described her as “almost unbeatable”. Eight years later, Thompson and Spieth are carrying US golf as the highest-ranked American players in the world.

But now that they are professionals, their paths rarely cross. Thompson, 21, the women’s world number three, and Spieth, 22, the men’s world number two, were reunited last month in New York to promote the Masters’ youth golf initiative, the Drive, Chip and Putt finals, to be held this weekend at Augusta National.

“I haven’t seen him in forever,” Thompson said, “so it was great to catch up.”

Why do boys and girls play sports together only to be segregated as adults? There would seem no better way to promote sport and dispel sexist presumptions than through combined-gender competitions, though the strategic alliance recently formed by the Professional Golfers’ Association and the Ladies Professional Golf Association comes across as faintly retro, given the forces fomenting revolution in the sports world.

While the two US-based golf tours explore the potential development of joint events in golf, members of the women’s national soccer team are suing its federation for equal pay and the International Olympic Committee has discussed adding more events that would feature men and women competing on the same team and sometimes against one another.

Joint event

With the US tours playing catch-up, a bold strategy is the only play. Perhaps no one is better positioned to effect change than Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president and chief global communications officer, and a former LPGA commissioner.

Second Captains

“I think what we have to think about in this alliance is that anything is possible and not be constrained by the attitude ‘That’s not how we do things’ or ‘That’s never been done before’ or any other challenges, recognising there will be challenges,” Votaw said. “Those shouldn’t be reasons we don’t work hard to overcome them.”

From 1960 to 1966, and again from 1976 through 1999, the PGA and LPGA tours sponsored a mixed team event, the JC Penney Classic, during golf’s slow season. The event was popular with the players, but the alliance must think bigger.

The main obstacle to a men’s and women’s combined event is finding a site with two championship-caliber courses whose design puts the women on equal footing with the men. Australian Karrie Webb, a 41-time winner on the LPGA Tour, figured that the logistics were too big a hurdle. Then Webb, 41, played this year’s Victorian Open. The event featured two full fields using two courses and alternating groups between men and women. The 36-hole cut was the top 50 and ties, and there was also a 54-hole cut.

“It’s a great concept, and it worked,” Webb said. “And I think the crowd loved it, too, because they don’t have to choose who to follow. If they sit at one green, they can see men and women coming through.”

Rory McIlroy, the former world number one from Northern Ireland, liked the format used in Pinehurst, North Carolina, for the 2014 men’s and women’s US Opens, played in back-to-back weeks on the famed No 2 course. The same set-up will be used this summer when golf returns to the Olympics. “That worked well,” McIlroy said, adding: “It would help the women get a little bit more exposure, and so in a way it would be great for the game.”

Another possibility is holding a combined event on one course, with men and women playing on alternate days. “I guess having a day in between play is fine, because that’s what happens in the Grand Slams of tennis,” McIlroy said. Whatever form it takes, he added, he’s amenable to combined men’s and women’s events.

Enthusiasm

Billie Jean King

King added: “People who are in the power position, they feel if they are sharing, they are losing. I keep trying to explain to them, they’re not losing anything because it will improve the popularity of the sport. If we make the pie bigger, everyone wins.”

Imagine if the members of the PGA Tour got to see the next Tiger Woods on a semiregular basis. That might be Lydia Ko, a New Zealander with 11 LPGA Tour victories, including one major, before her 19th birthday. Ko, who was born in South Korea 11 days after Woods’s victory in the 1997 Masters, said she would love to cross cart paths with the men more often.

“Just because you’re a girl doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have one girl role model,” Ko said. “So I think it’s great for the juniors that they might be able to see us play together, the PGA and the LPGA and go, ‘Wow, you know, that’s a pretty cool team’.’” – New York Times Service

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