Why Women’s Sports—Even Golf—are Still Playing Catch-up 7

Here’s a challenge: I’m assuming that because you’re reading this article, you would probably consider yourself at least a casual sports fan, so can you name a dozen current female athletes who are genuinely global superstars? Not easy, is it? And don’t be surprised because it’s a difficult task for most people unless they resort to Google. That’s because it’s a sad fact that women’s professional sports lag far behind men’s, not in the passion and expertise that is on view, but in the amount of money they play for and media awareness that each gender achieves. And you can prove my point by now naming 12 worldwide male superstars. Much easier, yes?

In your female superstar list, you might have the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova from tennis, maybe Lindsey Vonn the skier and, certainly if you’d done this last year, you’d have included some Olympians like gymnast Simone Biles or swimmer Katie Ledecky. By contrast, not only would the list of 12 superstar male athletes be simpler to compile, but you wouldn’t even have to give all their full names—LeBron, Aaron, Clayton, Usain, etc. are all so well-known that attaching surnames James, Rodgers, Kershaw and Bolt would be unnecessary. You see, this awareness inequality is not a 21st-century phenomenon; women have been playing catch-up with men’s pro sports forever.

But then we can look at golf. Perhaps alongside tennis, this is the sport that should right now be capturing worldwide attention—if not the same money—for women at a similar level as men. Female pros are just as smart and talented, they’re far more glamorous and they work great with sponsors. However, they play for far less money and attract far fewer fans. So, the questions are: will that situation ever change and can golf be a leader in this search for sporting equality?

First, let’s just establish that golf is the perfect sport—even better than tennis—for men and women to enjoy together. Both genders can play 18 holes on the same course at the same time with neither distracted by the other. The men can play off one set of tees, the women off another. They will use their own clubs, keep their own score and have a perfectly fine time. OK, they can also swim or ski or cycle together, but they can’t actually compete, and that’s where golf scores so highly, at least for amateurs. With handicapping, the men and women can legitimately compete against each other and either gender has an equal chance to win. The two genders can also play alternate shot competitions together as a pair, just like mixed doubles in tennis. Many golf clubs already stage mixed events where the skill of both players is tested to the max. But what about the pros? It’s here where the equality breakthrough is required, where the women’s game needs a little help and why last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were so disappointing.

It was the first time since 1904 that golf had made it to the games. The likes of Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler turned up along with the top female players including Lexi Thompson of the U.S., Lydia Ko, the world No. 1 from New Zealand and the best pros from the many strong Asian nations. In fact, while some of the world’s best male players cried off with excuses based around possibly contracting the Zika virus, virtually every one of the best female golfers competed in Brazil.

The specially designed Olympic Golf Course was the venue for both the men’s and women’s events with 34 different nations represented. England’s Justin Rose took the men’s gold medal, and Inbee Park of South Korea won the women’s, both in two 72-hole stroke play competitions played within a 10-day period. But, despite plenty of fans being on-site for all eight days of golf and hundreds of millions watching on TV around the world, the golfing authorities and the Olympic bosses missed a trick—where was the mixed event, perhaps a one-day, 36-hole alternate shot contest with two-person, male-female teams representing their countries?

Had the mixed tournament happened, could you imagine how many golf clubs around the world would’ve staged similar events? It would’ve sent a clear message that golf is for all genders. Heavy media criticism may lead to a mixed tournament in Tokyo in 2020. And why stop there?

In 2014, the men’s U.S. Open was played at the famous Pinehurst No. 2 golf course in North Carolina, finishing on its traditional Father’s Day Sunday with Germany’s Martin Kaymer crowned as champion. Then in an unprecedented move, the women’s U.S. Open began on the very same course the following Thursday, and Michelle Wie took the title.

What a buzz it created for both tournaments. Even the male and female pros who met up on the range during the middle weekend were excited by this innovation. Again, it illustrated to everyone that male and female golfers can be together—just like at all those tennis grand slams—and the fans can watch all of the golfers over the whole fortnight of competition.

And why not take the 2014 experiment even further? Pinehurst has many other fine courses, so maybe next time it’s the same week for all genders, just on different courses. The same idea could happen in Britain too, even at St Andrews, the home of golf, where the Open Championship and the women’s British Open could take place over the same four days, one on the Old Course and the other at the neighboring New Course.

With both the PGA Tour in America and the European Tour having new chief executives who seem alert to the bigger picture in golf, there’s a real chance of meaningful steps forward. And let’s also hope the two CEOs realize that one potential solution that doesn’t need a second outing is for female pros to play in men’s events. Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam were among the most recent women to try their luck on the PGA Tour. It just caused negative headlines—neither woman made a cut and certain high-profile male golfers like former Masters champion Vijay Singh voiced scathing opinions of what they basically called a publicity stunt.

So, in 2017 with the Solheim Cup as one of golf’s real highlights and with increasing numbers of young, talented women playing top-quality golf all over the world, the female half of the sport is in good shape. And if you’ve never bought a ticket for a women’s golf tournament or only ever watch men’s golf on TV, then it’s time to give a chance to the women. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, and there’ll be a few more names for your female global superstar list next time.

Ross Biddiscombe’s two acclaimed golf books—Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected and Cruel School—are available in hardback, paperback or e-book formats on Amazon.