Saturday, July 12, 2003

The Mountaintop Comes to Annika

When a man gets to the top of the stack in life, there's nowhere to go but down. Or he can retire. When a woman gets to the top, say in the corporate world, her victory will seem twice the feat because she had to vanquish the men to achieve it. A man will never be admired for having beaten the women. We shouldn't be surprised. A girl born today is coached from the cradle that she can aspire to be anything she wants, be as good at it as anyone else, that whatever she aspires to she deserves, that there are no longer any boundaries and that anyone who says otherwise harbors a dark resentment, perhaps even hatred, toward women. The S word will be invoked. In short, she is lied to, with all the machinery of our educational system, the major media, and our political institutions urging her forward. So what else is a modern princess to do?

If she does end up at the top of her profession, say, golf, she can be like Annika Sorenstam and show up at a men's golf tournament, to the rejoicing of the many and the chagrin of the few. The former group was thought to be inhabited by all enlightened, intelligent, non-sexist folk of progressive mind, the latter by grunting, club-swinging, excessively territorial cavemales with prominent brow ridges, terrified that the girl might show the boys - like Vijay Singh - a thing or two. Problem is, my daughter, a pretty decent college golfer who will soon be trying to make her way through the pro ranks, is also in that group. For some reason, she's never been big on gender-blurring. I don't know why. It's a fashionable phenomenon, and she keeps up with fashion. She likes playing golf with boys, moreso, in fact, than playing with girls. Sometimes she beats them. But she doesn't think she ought to get a free ticket to play in their tournaments. Again, I don't know why. The world teaches us to take any good thing that comes our way whether we deserve it or not. She doesn't subscribe. I've tried to raise her right, but this seems to be a sense she was born with. She's a stickler for the rules, and the concept of merit.

As we've watched this concept deteriorate over the years, I used to think sports was the one area of competition where excellence would always reign, where disguising incompetence according to sex or skin color would be simply impossible. This is still largely true at the higher levels, but now that we've entered the era of Triple A - affirmative action athletics - the social engineers won't give up. In college they use a technique called Title IX, which I don't have time to dissect, but you can read a book about it and a review of that book here. In professional sports, as when an NFL coaching position opens up, it requires PC sports reporters to point out all the black guys available for the job, as if that were the only requirement. In the media, it involves ESPN and other networks running WNBA games even though nobody watches and the league is losing money hand over foot. They can't find women who can actually compete in the NBA, so they give them the next best thing: equal time. And why do they give them that time? Because they're girls, I guess. I'd like to think that their willingness to absorb the expense of showing these games was evidence of a gentlemanly gesture, of noblesse oblige, but I don't think it is. There's something else behind the servicing of this ideology, and I haven't quite figured it out. This isn't about our society encouraging girls to participate in sports. What it's about is women competing against men, and golf, lacking the violence and rapid pace of some other sports, is peculiarly vulnerable to the corrosive curiosity of ideologues of various stripes - bureaucrats, courts, feminists. We'll call them the equalizers. They want men and women to be equal, everywhere and all the time, even though they know they can't be. And there's a market for their product, because the terrible irony is that this time the corruption came from within, from a corporate sponsor who sold out the standards for money. In feeding the crowd's hunger to see a woman competing against men, they saw a ratings bonanza. And they were right; the crowd wanted to see it. That's the part I can't figure out: why they wanted to see it. But they did.

Over at The Golf Channel, from the moment Annika Sorenstam announced her intention to accept the invitation to play in the Colonial Tournament, the enthusiasm was unrelenting. Whenever I tuned in, they were talking about it. And like the blanket coverage offered by cable news networks concerned with weightier affairs, like the legal troubles of Scott Petersen ( also a golfer, by coincidence, I trust), the GC assembled a panel, including sometime prominent British golfer and CBS commentator Peter Oosterhuis, who announced in magisterial tones that "Annika has every right to be there." And why? Because of her sterling record as a professional golfer. His leaving out the adjective "female" was probably an accident. When Mark Lye, who almost won the Masters one year, calmly demurred (he is never strident and was badly outnumbered, the fate of gentlemen these days), fellow panelist Kelly Tighlman disagreed, basing her defense on the nature of a sponsor's exemption, not on the premise that Annika had earned her place. The other panelist, Brian Hewitt, even wrote a column for the Golf Channel's website that defended Annika by employing the familiar technique of justifying one thing by assaulting another, in this case fellow male human being Vijay Singh, who had expressed his wish that Annika miss the cut, and that if paired with her he'd consider withdrawing. Hewitt takes revenge by informing us that early in Singh's career "There was more than a whiff of a cheating scandal involving his alleged creative use of a pencil on a scorecard." I wonder what "more than a whiff" means. I wonder what "alleged" means. Did he cheat or not? Hewitt imputes much without specifying anything. And even if Singh did cheat, this justifies Annika's presence how? Well, since Singh got a second chance, she deserves a first. And "because she is the best woman golfer on the planet; because she was invited; because she hasn't broken any rules and because she has worked extremely hard to separate herself from the rest of the women in golf." By this logic, the best female basketball player in the world deserves a spot on the Boston Celtics' roster if she can just wangle an invitation and has not broken any rules. She doesn't even have to try out for the team. But I wouldn't try to follow the logic if I were you. That's not what's driving things. It's character assassination in the service of ideology, a tactic at which liberals are accomplished, as in the event that you find homosexual behavior morally objectionable, you will be called a homophobe for your trouble, the "phobe" implying that your psychological makeup is to some degree neurotic or even deranged; or should you object to affirmative action on principle, you will made to recognize yourself for the sexist or racist you really are. In short, if you object to discrimination, you will be discriminated against. It's the PC, gender-bending, Title IX, affirmative action mentality that admits women to our military academies, sends them to war, makes them cops on the beat, hopes they will become priests, and embraces gay marriage - all because sex doesn't matter. Why this ideology exists I still can't say. Mr. Hewitt is not content with taking exception to Singh's ungentlemanly remarks (and they were). No, he must attempt to destroy Singh himself, all the while utterly avoiding the core of Singh's objection, which I saw him give in a television interview, to wit, that Ms. Sorenstam had not earned her place in the field, that she was taking someone else's, that this was important because this was how they (the men) tried to make their living, and that Ms. Sorenstam was already making a fine one on her own tour. None of this was addressed by Hewitt, most likely because it would have proved inconvenient. It cracks me up how these media people ask for your honest opinion and then, if you give it to them, they proceed to beat your reputation to a pulp with it. All Singh was doing was voicing an opinion shared by many of his fellow players who were too cowardly to do the same, or, if they did, couched their objections in such politesse you couldn't tell they were objections at all.

As far as I know, Singh does not carry the reputation of a cheater, nor has anyone except Hewitt implied that he doesn't deserve to be where he is. What he is known for is his work ethic, one of the hardest workers since Ben Hogan, who used to beat balls until his hands bled. Golfers at Singh's level have an almost Spartanic vision of the purity of competition in their sport, because it's the score that counts. They like the feeling of being exempt from the subjectivity of judgement that ice skaters, divers, and gymnasts must endure, and the diffusion of responsibility peculiar to all team sports like football and basketball. It's the score that makes the golfer worthy. You don't have to like him or the aesthetics of his swing, but you can't argue with his score. He shot it, nobody else, and you can't take it away. Reinforcing this frame of mind is the professional's fearsome respect for the near cruelty of the regime he has to deal with. It's called the PGA Tour qualifying school. If you want to see grown men cry, go watch the third and final stage of the competition. Annika could have done that. She could have paid her four or five grand and gone to qualifying school. Why didn't she? My guess is that she couldn't get past the first stage, but I'm just guessing.

Remember when John Daly won the 1991 PGA Championship? He was the ninth alternate when he got a phone call at 5:30 P.M. on a Wednesday, less than twenty-four hours before the tournament began, informing him that he had moved to first alternate. Nick Price then withdrew to attend the birth of his son, and Daly was in. Without benefit of a practice round, he went on to win. This is the stuff dreams are made of, and Singh makes the reasonable point that, while extending an invitation to Annika might have fulfilled her own dreams, the gesture might also have snuffed out someone else's.

So how did Annika get in? On a sponsor's exemption. And what is one of those? They are places in the field, approximately seven in number, reserved to the discretion of the corporate sponsor putting up the purse for the tournament, the money guys. They can invite whomever they want. The CEO can invite his arthritic, wheelchair-bound grandmother if he so desires. As far as I know, there is nothing in the rules prohibiting cripples and females from participating, at least not since the Supreme Court let Casey Martin and his electric cart into the game. But usually these invitations are extended to golfers of genuine caliber - a Tom Watson in the U.S. Open, for example, or someone of prominence who has fallen on hard times, like a Chip Beck - just as the LPGA might give an exemption to Nancy Lopez who, though past her game, can still play, has at least a chance of winning, and can still draw a crowd. And it was the crowds the Colonial sponsors had in mind, a commercial venture well-calculated, for it appeared to me that Annika's galleries were at least as large as those of Tiger Woods. But that doesn't make it right.

For those of you who think I object to her presence in the field simply because she is a woman, you'd be badly backasswards wrong. In sports, it's the women who discriminate, not the men. The men have the NBA. The women have the WNBA. It's the same in tennis. It's the same in bowling. In golf, the men have the Professional Golfers Association. The women have the Ladies PGA. The men have the U.S. Open; the women have the Women's U.S. Open, which states in the regulations on the entry form that you must have been a female at birth to be eligible. (They might want to re-visit this once a transgendered female signs up; the reverse has already happened in tennis.) Annika could have gone through the two-stage process of qualifying for the U.S. Open. Why didn't she?

To give her aspirations some perspective, we need to remember that a long time ago a woman did try to qualify for a men's tournament, and succeeded. Babe Didrickson Zaharias, possibly the greatest human athlete of any sex (okay, of either sex) to ever walk the planet, made it into the 1945 Los Angeles Open. Not only that, she made the cut. And how did she do it? By playing in a qualifying tournament against 200 men and beating most of them. Annika could do that. She could pay a few hundred dollars to compete on a Monday against a few hundred men for four available spots. Lots of guys, dreamseekers, do it all the time, Nationwide and mini-tour players roaming the country and spending a lot of money to play in Monday qualifiers, hoping for the big break: qualifying, then finishing in the top ten and moving on to the next tournament. It's one of the few ways around qualifying school. Annika could have tried it, but she didn't. Do you think she wanted to? I don't.

What she needed was the sure thing. A good thing came her way and she couldn't turn it down. Having climbed to the mountaintop in women's golf, she wanted to try the men's, so the mountaintop came to her. The men offered her a hand up, and instead of saying, "I don't deserve it," she took the hand. If she'd had to qualify, she might never have gotten the chance to live this dream. Those who are close to the game, have no political agenda, and are able to face reality, already knew this. Even Fred Reed, doing his 'slow country boy armed with shotgun shells of common sense' routine, knew it, and he doesn't strike me as the golfing type: "What I don't understand is how come people in this country, except about five with good sense, can believe things they know aren't true. It's a talent Americans have. Most of our social policy is based on things we know aren't true. And when things don't happen that can't, we wonder why they didn't, even though we know."

To her credit, I suppose, Annika never claimed to be a pioneer blazing new paths for the Advancement of Women. All she wanted was to test her skills at the highest level. (What this said to her fellow lady golfers - that you guys aren't good enough to make me the best I can be - was not much commented on.) But she had to have known what others would make of it, and sure enough, after her first round 71, the Golf Channel convened another panel comprised of current lady pros and one from the past, the great Kathy Whitworth. They were all atwitter with excitement, about what I'm not sure. Kelli Kuehne was at pains to make us aware that the women were as good at their level as the men at theirs. Maybe. It's arguable. Who cares? The thoroughly innocuous and totally agreeable male interviewer asked nary a hard question except maybe for this one: did any of them think there would come a time when a woman would play full time on the PGA Tour? (He must think women are evolving into some kind of superpeople while men are standing still. He even seemed to hope it was true.) There was some hemming and hawing. Well, uh, the important thing was that this was happening right now and it's just so wonderful, and new opportunities for women and, yes, it was distinctly possible that Annika could make the cut. The next day, when she didn't - and modestly confessed that she was in way over her head and going back to her own tour where she belonged - praises were sung to her conduct on the course, her "bravery" in the effort, and then the subject was dropped. Brian Hewitt never apologized to Vijay Singh, and Peter Oosterhuis remains inured to self-doubt. If there were any mea culpas, or admissions that one had spoken in haste or made rash predictions, I didn't hear them.

Some might wonder if I have any good thing to say about Ms. Sorenstam. Yes I do. She's a great lady golfer, female at birth.

Now let me tell you how good she is. She shot 71-75 on a course laid out for men. It's not the most difficult they play, but it's a good one. Most of the top amateur men in the country could not have done that. Even 50%, maybe more, of the men on the mini-tours could not have done it (I do not consider the Nationwide Tour a mini-tour; it's crawling with ex-PGA Tour members). These players are everywhere, in every city in the country, guys with scratch handicaps on their own courses, but they could not have done it. They'd have had at least one score in the high 70's or even in the 80's. And these are the cream of the crop. But what does the average male golfer shoot on any given day, on courses far less demanding than a tour layout? Try this: 97. And that's assuming he's playing honestly, not rolling his ball in the rough or taking an illegal drop or playing by the mythical "winter rules," all of which happen all the time. Yes, 97. Twenty-five strokes over par. How many do you think ever shoot a legitimate round of par? Try this: one tenth of one percent, one golfer out of every thousand. With a piddling two and a half percent ever attaining a handicap of five or less, I'm thinking Annika can beat approximately 97% of the male golfers on the planet any day of the week while playing from their tees. The problem is, that 97% is not to be found on the PGA Tour. Her first round, one over par 71 kept her in touch with the field. Making the cut seemed possible. But in golf, the pressure isn't released with the passing of each round; it gets worse, and the next day her short game let her down. The vaunted "delicate female touch" that is supposed to make their short games better is another myth. Brutish males get up and down more often, and they putt better. The pressure always finds your weak spot. Much was made of the fact that she beat eleven of the men in the field, but not much of the fact that she finished near the bottom. Dominance in golf is established over time, and in time, a very short time, those eleven guys would leave her behind.

Here's another thing: once the competition was underway, I was rooting for her. So was my hard-nosed daughter. In her case it was probably the underdog thing and a faint loyalty to her sex. In my case it was the male thing: Men want too much for women to do well. Women know they can get what they want from us, and that we don't like to see them suffer a hard time even when they deserve it. They know this better than we do. As I mentioned to a female reader, they deracinate us, tangling our emotions beyond reason. Those crowds were cheering for the underdog, the lone sheep in the midst of wolves, and the fact that she was a lady only made her plight more poignant. I'll bet most of the men in the crowd wanted to put an arm around her. Before the round, the guys she was playing with tried to talk her into playing well. They don't do that for each other. A perfunctory "Play well," or "Good luck" is the most you'll get. And they don't get to cry when they lose - only when they win. I know it's hypocritical, but I couldn't help myself. She looked kind of cute out there. The feminists won't like hearing that but, unlike them, I'm able to admire all of a woman's finer qualities.

But here's the bigger question, the thing I can't figure out: why the push to see women compete against men, whatever the arena? What pleasure do they get out of it? Where's the fun in abolishing distinctions and watching the girls get beat? I don't think the equalizers are much into fun. Being the kind of people who were born to Organize Society, they'd gladly live their whole lives without it as long as things go as planned. Is the question of how Annika stacks up against the best men in the world one that we really need the answer to? Of course not. But it seems these days we just can't deny ourselves the answer to any question. I wonder who the first woman will be to step in the ring with Mike Tyson. Every now and then an item pops up in the news about how some girl has been let on to a boy's high school football team. If my football coach had put a girl across from me and told me to run into her, I'd have quit. If I were a pro, I'd do the same. I don't hit girls, period. You can't pay me enough to slam into the sweet softness of creation's cradle. The NBA once let a woman try out for one of its teams. She didn't make it. I'm glad. How many of you really want to see some girl take an elbow in the teeth from Shaquille O'Neal? I guess there are some who do though. Or at least they're willing to let her suffer the elbow to advance an agenda. Says Fred: " used to be that women didn't think they had to compete with men. When I was in high school, everybody knew the boys could beat the girls at basketball. It was just how the world was. Nobody ever thought about it. I didn't figure I was somehow better than Gloria because I could out-rebound her. When girls made better grades, which they generally did, the boys didn't feel oppressed and talk about how their self-esteem was a quart low and the teachers were against them. Girls just did better homework. It was how things were. Now it's different. Women are always challenging men at things."

Yeah, I remember Kathy Stratton, the smartest person in my tenth grade class, maybe the smartest person in the universe. Shy, dumpy, plain and plump, with goggles for glasses, she almost never raised her hand unless no one else knew the answer. She almost never spoke unless the teacher called on her, but we all knew she made nothing but A's. She knew the answer to every geometry question ever asked and probably to some that weren't. No one ever thought she was trying to show the rest of us up, especially the boys. She was smarter than everyone, girls included. I never felt that if I made an A too, which I didn't, she'd hold it against me. Of course, while I gazed out the window, daydreamed about girls, and played every sport in its season, Kathy did her homework. I never saw her at the prom or the sock hops, because no one ever asked her to go. She was never down by the river in some boy's car for a session of heavy petting. The real competition in life is among girls for boys and vice-versa. Kathy wasn't a part of that. I sometimes wonder if she ever married; I hope her smarts did her some good.

But now the competition's everywhere all the time. It throws up a wall between the sexes that ought not to be there. As Fred points out, it used to be that one of the nice things about girls was that "they were people you didn't have to compete against." They offered relief from all that. They were the reason we competed at all. Now, half the time, they're the enemy, and something good has gone out of life. I'd always thought that the union between a man and a woman was the most important thing in the world, and the most interesting, the interest arising from the differences between them that would eventually form a whole. It's what life is all about, and actually keeps it going, but we don't celebrate that fact anymore. I know courtship can feel like some kind of competition, but it's really just a test to see if two hearts can stay the course of a common purpose. It ends in either separation or union. If you survive the courtship, there might be marriage beyond, where the real competition begins. It provides a safe fortress from whose battlements a woman really can rule the world. In my little cabin in my neck of the woods, I'd say the female wins about ninety percent of the time. Why? Because she's a girl, a woman, a queen. She hasn't asked for an exemption through this life, but I'd like her to have one into the next. I want too much for her to do so well. I hope it's by the Sponsor's design, because I wouldn't have it any other way.

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