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First Person: Annika, Rosie and Me


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For one amateur golfer and avid fan, it's the LPGA Tour pros who play the kind of game that gives him hope.

 

By Mark Reiter

Golf For Women

May/June 2006

 

When Augusta's co-founder Bobby Jones watched 25-year-old Jack Nicklaus crush the field at the 1965 Masters, beating Arnold Palmer and Gary Player by nine strokes, he said of Nicklaus, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar."

 

I know what Jones meant. When I watch the pros on the PGA Tour, I see men playing a game with which I am not familiar. I'm a 54-year-old male who came to the game of golf eight years ago and fell hard for it. I work in New York City but play at least 70 rounds a year. I'm a 20-handicap with the usual deficiencies that number suggests. I don't hit the ball as far as my 19-year-old son does, and I'm not always sure where it will go when I do hit it. A teacher would label that "lack of power and consistency," which explains my inability to relate to the men on tour.

 

I can't relate to guys reaching the green in two on a 530-yard par 5 with a driver/5-iron. I can't relate to guys who carry a 2-iron and actually use it. I can't relate to guys arguing with their caddies about whether the yardage to the pin is 175 yards or 176.

 

That's why I like to watch the women play.

 

Golf is a game built on imagining and emulating (aka fantasizing). It's that rare sport where you can play the same venues as the greats and imagine what you'd do in their circumstances. You can't do that in any other sport, really. George Steinbrenner won't let you play ball in Yankee Stadium. NASCAR won't let you take Daytona International Speedway's Turn 2 at 190 miles per hour. But in golf, I can walk through the clubhouse at Winged Foot (assuming my buddy Tom Leslie invites me) and admire a historic photo on the wall of Bobby Jones teeing off on the West Course at the 1929 U.S. Open, with Babe Ruth and Tommy Armour watching from the gallery. Moments later, I can actually tee off on the West Course and imagine being Jones.

 

Walking the fairways that Bobby Jones walked will do that to you. It will give you delusions of grandeur--until, of course, you strike the ball and remember your proper place. You are not Bobby Jones. Golf is a sport where we fans, the folks who watch at home, tend to be the game's most enthusiastic participants. Golf is not unique in this; the approximately 134 remaining tennis fans in America also avidly play their chosen game. But golfers have elevated this urge to play the game to fanatical levels. We amateur practitioners study our heroes' instructional books and videos. We play the same clubs and balls they play. We even wear the same clothes they wear. If I'm going to fantasize about what I would do in Ernie Els' shoes, it helps to be actually wearing Ernie Els' Fidra shirts and his FootJoys.

 

When you think about it, the entire economic foundation of the game is built on the yin and yang of self-improvement and selflessness. You get better at golf by adopting the ego-shedding instinct to emulate someone else. The only problem is, someone forgot to tell the male touring pros to make that dream possible, to throttle it down to my level so I can execute the emulation part. I realize that it's not the pros' responsibility to tame their game so I can relate, and that it's the advertisers who encourage this identification--though I don't expect them to sell me their latest equipment breakthrough with the pitch, "Buy this, and, oh, by the way, you still won't play like the pros." Believing I can improve--and making that happen--is my responsibility.

 

The women pros, on the other hand, play a game that gives me the tiny glimmering hit-and-hope feeling that I can do this. I can hit a ball the length of one football field shorter than the Big Boys and still post a decent score.

 

I first realized I prefer watching women to men on May 22, 2003. That's the day Annika Sorenstam played her first (and, so far, only) PGA Tour event at Colonial CC in Fort Worth, Tex. The media, typically, hyped her appearance as a "battle of the sexes." But that day was an Aha! moment for me because it exposed some instructive gender differences. Playing side by side, shot for shot with the men, Annika showed me that you don't need power to score and, most important, that you can achieve the same ends with different tools. On holes where her opponents would hit 7-iron approaches, Annika used a 7-wood and still got closer to the hole. Where her opponents would hit their drivers 300 yards off the tee into the rough, Annika would hit her 4-wood at least 50 yards shorter--but in the fairway. Here was an approach that I could emulate. It is almost embarrassing to admit my joy and relief upon learning that Annika, like me, did not carry a 3-iron in her bag.

 

When I watch an LPGA player, I can relax knowing that (a) I'll never see her wipe her brow in relief as her ball lands in a greenside bunker, because getting up and down out of sand is easier than chipping out of rough; (b) I'll never see her sailing a wedge shot 20 yards past the flag with so much backspin that it yo-yos back to the hole at 60 mph; and © I'll never see her muscling a 9-iron 150 yards in the air out of six-inch rough. I'm not saying women can't perform these feats. I'm saying that I rarely, if ever, see them do it--certainly not with the regularity of the touring men.

 

LPGA pros play golf the way its creators intended it to be played. They avoid bunkers because bunkers are supposed to be penal, not a strategic advantage. When the women fire at the green, the ball obeys the laws of physics as I know them; it either thuds to a stop or rolls forward. It doesn't behave like golf's equivalent of a three-point bank shot. When the women land in thick rough, they take their lumps like the rest of us and punch out back to the fairway.

 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not extolling the women's game because I regard it as somehow inferior. When an LPGA star has a bad day, she's still shooting 74s and 75s on tough courses. (Show of hands: Who among us would be cracking clubs over our knees because we shot 75?) I also don't gravitate to the women because they lack what I lack: muscular power. Whether it's Annika or Laura Davies or Michelle Wie, quite a few women now can get close to the magical 300-yard barrier. In other words, I've stopped looking to the LPGA for confirmation that length doesn't matter.

 

What I have found in the women's game is a bracing dose of reality. Forget Survivor and Fear Factor. For me, reality TV is the LPGA Tour.

 

When I watched Annika smash her first drive at Colonial and do a rubber-leg walk off the tee because her Callaway ball had found the fairway rather than the trees, that was a part of the game with which I am familiar. Like Annika, I've mopped my sweating brow in mock relief after I connected on the first tee rather than whiffed. I never see the guys do that.

 

Like any fan, I have my favorites. I love anything that Annika does. I like her crisp, determined, metronomic gait along the course, as if she's perpetually counting off yardage and cannot be interrupted. I savor the aesthetic pleasure of Annika swinging a club, any club. Her swing is so compact and effortless that you cannot tell whether she's hitting a driver or sand wedge. It's the same swing every time, so simple and uncomplicated that my dream is to someday have that swing. I've studied her book, Golf Annika's Way, thoroughly, from her grip to her weight shift to her equipment choices to her workout routine. I'm convinced that the moment I can do two-dozen chin-ups with a 25-pound weight strapped to my waist, I, too, will radar the ball 295 yards down the fairway like Annika.

 

I'm fascinated by Morgan Pressel's pre-putt routine, the way she lines up the putter with just her left hand, keeping her right hand behind her back, as if she's hiding a coin or afraid of singeing her fingers on a hot blade.

 

I get a kick watching Juli Inkster march defiantly down the fairway, and how, upon arriving at the green, she takes command of the real estate, prowling every corner and angle around her ball as if she's conducting a home inspection. I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about Liselotte Neumann's terse backswing.

 

Lorena Ochoa is a player I really like, too, especially the way she'll employ Gary Player's walk-over follow-through finish to ensure precise ball-striking.

 

Most of all, I worship Rosie Jones. Here is a woman who plays a game I'm very familiar with--because she employs my favorite club, a 9-wood. Jones is perennially one of the shortest hitters on tour, but she is straight and accurate, which goes a long way in explaining her 13 LPGA Tour wins. One reason is her masterful use of lofted fairway woods. Hey, when there's a gap the size of a Sam's Club parking lot between your drive and that of the competition's on every par 5 or long par 4, you need an equalizer. And that, I've discovered, for anyone who can't hit a 4-iron 190 yards, is the 9-wood. I've never understood the high-testosterone bias against lofted fairway woods as an alternative to hard-to-hit long irons.

 

Why do many men regard using 9- and 11-woods as somehow cheating or giving up--the golf equivalent of short men wearing elevator shoes? It's irrational--as silly as deriding, say, rescue clubs or hybrids or oversize drivers or putters the size of satellite dishes. To my mind, permission to pack a 9-wood is the LPGA's greatest gift to a mortal male. (I know, I know. Vijay Singh carries a 9-wood, too. But I'm pretty sure it's not because he can't hit a 4-iron.)

 

I used to think I was alone in my appreciation of the women's game. Then last summer I attended a lawn party in upstate New York celebrating my niece Emmy's high school graduation. It was a hot, humid afternoon on a Sunday in late June. Kids were hurling themselves down a water slide constructed for the occasion. Adults were milling about, sipping cool drinks. I was doing the same, standing next to Emmy's grandfather Dick Davenport. Dick is about as devoted and doting a grandfather as you'll find. But he is also an avid golfer who still occasionally shoots his age (73). We looked at our watches at the same time. Five o'clock. I wondered if he was thinking what I was thinking: The final round of the Women's U.S. Open was wrapping up at Cherry Hills, near Denver.

 

"What do you say we go inside and see how the girls are doing?" I ventured.

 

He glanced around, and followed me indoors to track down a TV set. CBS was showing Padraig Harrington chasing down Jim Furyk on the back nine at the Barclays Classic in downstate New York. Click.

 

Fox had Tony Stewart running away with the NASCAR race in California. Click.

 

Ah, yes, NBC had the LPGA. So we hunkered down with some beers and Cheez Doodles to enjoy the day's best sports broadcast.

 

We quickly learned that Annika, making a bid for her third grand slam of the year, was out of it, a half-dozen strokes behind the leaders. Michelle Wie, who had begun the day tied for the lead, was blowing up to an ugly 82. Lorena Ochoa was making a late charge with four birdies on the back nine, only to self-destruct on the 18th hole. That whittled the contenders down to the precocious 17-year-old amateur Morgan Pressel and the 23-year-old Birdie Kim. Both were at plus four as they headed to 18 in the last two pairings.

 

Kim, who was playing in her first Open, found the fairway. With 193 yards to the flag for her second shot, she pushed her 7-wood into a bunker, 65 feet from the pin. She'd need the shot of her life for an up and down to save par.

 

"A dollar she can't do it," I said to Dick, slapping a bill on the coffee table.

 

"I'll take that bet," he said.

 

Kim floated the ball out of the sand, and it rolled and rolled 10, 20, 30 yards into the cup. A birdie for Birdie! She was leading the U.S. Open at plus three.

 

I couldn't believe it. I reached for my dollar to hand it magnanimously to Dick. But he had already stuffed it in his wallet.

 

"Pretty good golf," he said, crunching a Cheez Doodle.

 

Pressel was watching Kim's heroics from the 18th fairway, where her drive was 187 yards from the flag. She elected to go with a 5-iron, knocking it 40 feet short of the green into thick rough. She'd need a miraculous chip-in to birdie the hole and force a playoff.

 

As Pressel surveyed the shot, I heard NBC analyst Johnny Miller--who has built his broadcasting career on second-guessing player decisions--utter words I would never have expected to leave his lips.

 

"You know," suggested Miller, "just for this one hole, and maybe No. 9, it would have been good to carry a 9- or 11-wood." Informed by his fellow analyst Dottie Pepper that Pressel does indeed carry an 11-wood, Miller said, "I would have thought she might have used that on this uphill shot."

 

When Johnny Miller, the testiest analyst in golf, recommends an 11-wood, you know there's a lot to learn from watching the women play. When I heard him say those words, I felt ...validated.

 

I'd like to report that watching the women has had a salutary effect on my game, that I've whittled my 20-handicap down to single digits. Change doesn't happen overnight in golf, if it happens at all. And you don't improve technique by watching; you get better by practicing.

 

But the women have got me thinking in new ways. Now when I'm 200 yards away from the pin, I ask myself, "What would Rosie do?" When I'm lost in a bunker, I conjure up positive images of Birdie Kim blasting out at Cherry Hills. It never enters my mind to ask, "What would Tiger or Phil or Sergio do?" Women are my role models now. And I think it's working.

 

It's certainly altered my decision making. For example, the most recent round I played was with my wife, Marie. (That's not surprising. Of the 70 rounds I play in a year, at least 50 of them are with her. I regard this as a tremendous marital blessing. In my home I never have to plead or negotiate for permission to play golf; my wife is usually suggesting it.) We were playing a longish par 4, and she was already on the green in three. I had pulled my second shot, a 9-wood, into a fluffy lie 40 yards from the green. Forty to 70 yards--that most treacherous zone--used to be a decision-making nightmare for me. Do I pitch or chip or bump-and-run? I used to stare at my clubs, going back and forth between 9-iron and pitching wedge and sand wedge. If you can't commit to the club, it's hard to commit to the shot--and the result will usually bear this out.

 

But such wavering is a thing of the past. Nowadays, facing a shot from 70 yards in, I ask myself, "What would Annika do?" In this case, I remembered Annika explaining in a TV interview how she was finding more occasions to use her 60-degree lob wedge. So that's the club I chose, and with visions of Annika's swing in my head, I pitched to within five feet of the cup. I accepted my wife's "Nice shot" with studied indifference--as if this were my usual game. Inside, though, I was quite pleased with myself and privately thanking Annika. I marked my ball with a Susan B. Anthony dollar--my personal homage to the female game--and stood off to the side, paying rapt attention as my wife lined up her 15-foot putt and drained it for par.

 

When a woman is playing, I keep my eyes and my mind wide open.

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