Walsh, I think, it's all his fault. Mr. Walsh was, before he became an acclaimed international cookbook author, just a humble hack here at the Chronicle. Back in thosedays, for 70 bucks and a byline, he'd cheerfully review the city's hamburgers, Frito pies, and snow cones. A regular man of the people.
It was, as I recall, my first Chroniclestaff meeting. I sat quietly, completely unnerved, on the floor of a hot room. As the meeting adjourned, Walsh, a rather large fellow, bellowed at me from across the room. To avoid any conflict with the battery of attorneys he now employs, I'll paraphrase the former food critic: "Hey Cotton or Coach or whatever you are, I want to see some good golf stories from you." A food writer -- it figured.
I then, you see, considered golf an activity for pansies, elderly Republicans, and people from Scotland. With the sole intent of mocking the game of the Big Food Writer, I enrolled in a golf school. My plan was clear, the objective simple: to spend three days inside this moronic sport, then rip its stupid rules and institutions to little shreds. I'd show that big galoot Walsh! Though it wouldn't occur to me for some years hence, this was roughly analogous to trying heroin on a dare.
And so I sit in the media center of the LPGA's Phillips Invitational. Thousands of dollars, four sets of golf clubs, and an endless succession of 3-woods and putters later, I consider my addiction. The Spurs and Stars are both in the conference finals, and here I am, about to spend three days at a ladies' golf tournament. I'm not well.
Actually, watching a golf tournament is difficult -- in fact, impossible. With hundreds of golfers strewn out over miles of hills and snake-infested forest, a spectator must choose between various inefficient ways of viewing and hope for the best. I decide to follow one threesome around the course -- but whom? Not many household names here.
After some scholarly consideration, I pick the threesome of Susie Redman, Nanci Bowen, and Kelli Kuehne, solely on the sound basis that Kuehne's a UT girl, she's cute, and her bio says she's "a sports nut." Otherwise, these are three average pros, all a little under par after day one. The ping-ping-ping of three blasts right down the center of the fairway off the first tee sends me thumbing through my media guide. Is this a fluke? Between these three they average240 yards a drive, which is Walsh'sbest drive, when the wind's accommodating and the ground's hard. This got my attention.
While the disadvantage of following one group is that you're isolated from the rest of the tournament, the advantage is you can play along with your group, feeling the constant shot-by-shot tension created as putts are missed with people's livelihoods at stake. For example, Redman starts the day in contention at five under. On the front nine she misses three short putts. Though she's shooting a score I'll never get within 30 strokes of, she's killing herself, and she knows it. Instead of being a stroke off the lead, she treads water, letting an opportunity -- which may never come again -- slip away.
As with tennis, the women's version of this game is really more fan-friendly. Few hackers can relate to a 400-yard drive or a 180-yard 9-iron: Like tennis, the men's game is a power game. The ladies make up for brute strength with surgical precision. In 18 holes on Friday, three garden-variety pros hit 54 tee shots without a single ball in the water, woods, or in a ravine. That's pretty cool. The relatively light crowds afford me the opportunity to closely study the various grips, observe ball position, and peek into their huge bags, hoping for a voodoo cure to my flying right elbow. Thanks to that dastard Walsh, I'm a sick pup.
What this sport desperately craves is mainstream credibility, and the big dollars from television that this credibility will bring. This isn't going to happen. The LPGA can't market a few cute teenagers and some wily old veterans in hand-to-hand battle like tennis can. Instead, they must sell a massive, bland crowd of golfers to an already sports-oversaturated American public.
Golf is, basically, a niche sport. Despite the way it seems, not that many people play the game, and many despise it. TV ratings, even for the majors, aren't impressive. On the same day a lady you've never heard of -- Akiko Fukushima -- picks up her first winning LPGA check of $120,000 at Onion Creek, another unknown, Olin Browne, earns half a million for winning the Colonial in Ft. Worth. Is Browne $400,00 better than Fukushima? Probably not. I guess it's not fair.
But then, justice isn't the question. There's no Title IX here to make all things fair and good. It's the real world of supply and demand. The LPGA, like pro soccer, indoor football, and the WNBA, is fighting an uphill, probably unwinnable battle.
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