July 31, 2007

Women's British Open Preview

What's it going to take to win and who will have the magic?

The most historic bridge in golf is a lot more gentle than The Old Course may be.

The most historic bridge in golf is a lot more gentle than The Old Course may be.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - The player who ends up hoisting the championship trophy Sunday on the 18th green of the Old Course could very well be the woman who does the best job of getting her feet back on the ground the quickest. The atmosphere among the participants at the Ricoh Women's British Open is so electric -- euphoric is the only word that comes to mind -- it appears the biggest pre-tournament challenge could very well be not so much getting down yardages and learning where all the bunkers are but reining in the emotions generated by playing in the first women's professional tournament at the Home of Golf.

Annika Sorenstam, Catriona Matthew and Maria Hjorth have won the St. Rules Trophy here, but that's an amateur event, and only one of the three rounds is played on the Old Course. This is a horse of a very different color. What happens here this week is history. Everything will be a first -- culminating with the winner of the first Women's British Open contested at St. Andrews. That is an honor only one woman will ever be able to claim. The name that gets etched onto the trophy will live along side those of Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris, Bobby Jones, Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as linked to the history of the Old Course.

Thy party-like atmosphere -- no, make that party atmosphere -- that has rippled through the Old Grey Toon the last three days was beginning to give way to competitive tension as Wednesday crept closer toward the start of Thursday's first round. It is completely without exaggeration to say few tournaments have meant so much to the advancement of women's golf as this one, and that perhaps no single tournament has meant as much.

Certainly, Annika Sorenstam's appearance at the 2003 Colonial Invitational on the men's tour was a massive moment in growing appreciation of the women's game. And the elevation of the Women's British Open to major championship status in 2001 was important in terms of increasing the game's global platform. But staging a women's event on the Old Course -- and having the all-male Royal & Ancient Golf Club open the doors of its clubhouse and locker room to women -- creates a credibility for the overall sport of women's professional golf that can push the game to a new level of popularity.

Here's what is at stake this week at the Ricoh Women's British Open. Just as it was crucial that Sorenstam represent herself and her tour well when she appeared at Colonial -- was there anyone not riveted to that first round, which was a veritable shot-making clinic? -- so to do all 150 women in this field represent the professional game to which they aspire. In a way that is most unlikely totally unfair -- and progress is always in the face of stubborn obstacles, else wise it would not be progress -- the players in this tournament need to excel. This needs to be a well-played tournament.

The women's game has come a long way, baby, but it needs to go so much further. The PGA Tour gets hundreds of millions of dollars a year from TV rights fees. The LPGA still operates on time buys, which it purchases the TV time and then makes money by selling the commercial time itself. That needs to change. At three of the four LPGA majors -- including this one -- there is a pro-am. That needs to change. This is a major, for crying out loud.

While the Thursday and Friday rounds will have live coverage on Turner, the weekend coverage will be tape-delay on ABC. That needs to change. Can you imagine America waiting until Sunday afternoon to watch Sergio Garcia hand the silver claret jug to Padraig Harrington? Women's golf will only be regarded as the entertainment equivalent of the men's game when it is presented on an equal footing. The LPGA -- and all the women's tours of the world -- have a chance to get a leg up on that footing this week at St. Andrews.

There likely will be a lot of viewers who will tune in this week just to see how the women will handle the Old Course. My guess is that they are going to handle it in an extremely competitive manner. For those real purists, those real fans of the game, this will be an opportunity to watch St. Andrews played the way it is meant to be played -- not overpowered with mindless strength, but rather negotiated with cunning finesse. Clubs will be hit into greens in this tournament men haven't had to play into St. Andrews in decades. That should be a lot of fun.

A misstep of sorts was made, it feels from where I am sitting, in that tournament officials decided to play the course as a par-73 by making the Road Hole -- No. 17 -- into a 457-yard par-5. Why make it a par 5? Why not have the women play the course at the same par as the men? So what if No. 17 plays to a stroke average closer to 5 than to 4? Par is a made-up number, the point is just to get around the old links in fewer strokes than anyone else.

Hopefully, when No. 17 pops up as the 71st hole of the championship on Sunday afternoon, no one will care what the par is but rather only be consumed by the strategic importance that brilliant hole will play in deciding the outcome of the tournament. Hopefully, also, the evaluation of how well the women handled the Old Course will be placed within the same natural context as it is when the men play here. Nature -- wind and rain -- will have as much to do with determining the final score of the winner as shot making.

This is a special event, no doubt about it, and there is a sense here that it is going to produce a special outcome. The winner will likely be the women who not only gets her feet back on the ground the quickest, but also the one who gets her soul into the ancient soil and touches the heart of the game that beats beneath the turf.

There is magic here. St. Andrews is a place than makes grown men get on their knees and kiss the ground. It is where for hundreds of years male professional golfers have made their pilgrimage to celebrate the origins of the game, to get in touch with the spirit of the game. This week the women pros get to share in that ceremony. This is much more than the first Women's British Open played at St. Andrews. This is much more than the first women's professional tournament played at St. Andrews. This is the first time the Home of Golf welcomes the other half of the game back home.