The biggest golf story of 2005? It wasn't Tiger Woods's winning six tournaments with a rebuilt swing. (He's done that before.) It wasn't Annika Sorenstam's winning her eighth LPGA Player of the Year award. (Her acceptance remarks have become as stale as a politician's stump speech.) No, the most tantalizing tale of '05 was the kindergarten revolution in women's golf.
Need to have your memory jogged? Think back to spring, when a sparkly 18-year-old with a fetish for pink, Paula Creamer, picked the week before her high school graduation to win her first LPGA event. Or to summer, when 17-year-old Morgan Pressel came within a Birdie Kim eyelash of simultaneously owning both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open titles. Or to fall, when a 16-year-old Honolulu mall rat, Michelle Wie, collected a $10 million present for saying "I do" to corporate suitors.
All of a sudden, a sport obsessed with its past is fueling more predictions than Alvin Toffler on steroids. Wie alone, the futurists say, could spark a women's golf boom from Bangkok to Budapest. Creamer, the Pink Panther, could do for fiberglass insulation what Arnold Palmer did for Pennzoil. Pressel, the feistiest of the three, could give the LPGA an edge it hasn't had since Dottie Pepper retired to the booth. Incoming LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens must retire each night with sugarplums dancing in her head: Hot rivalries! Soaring ratings! Sponsors outbidding each other for naming rights!
Granted, it's all wishful thinking at this point. Neither Pressel nor Wie is eligible for LPGA membership until they turn 18--in May for Pressel, October 2007 for Wie. Meanwhile, Creamer, despite a rookie-of-the-year season that included two wins and four seconds in the U.S. and two more wins in Japan, is something less than a household name. But those who have watched the three phenoms grow up tend to be believers. Pressel, they note, qualified for the U.S. Women's Open when she was 12, and when she missed the cut that year, she was ticked. Creamer showed a similar brashness this fall when she blithely promised a U.S. victory in the Solheim Cup and then backed it up with a 31/2-point performance. As for Wie ... well, you hear a lot of chatter about how she has only won one tournament of note, the 2003 U.S. Women's Public Links. Really! Never mind that in '05 Wie finished second in three LPGA events.
Those who dream of a boom in women's golf see in the three phenoms a blend of passion and personality that transcends performance, making them candidates for true celebrity. (Wie, of course, is already there--famous for being famous.) This is exactly what outgoing LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw had in mind a few years ago when he nailed his Five Points of Celebrity to the door of the ladies' locker room. Tired of listening to players complain that the LPGA wasn't getting its due, Votaw put the responsibility squarely in the golfers' laps. Wie, Creamer and Pressel seem to get it. Open a magazine and there's Paula, pretty in pink, cheerleader perky, auburn hair cascading to her shoulders. Surf the net and there's Morgan, generating her own hype, stirring the pot with sly digs about Wie, feeding the media maw. Turn on the TV and there's Michelle, giggling girlishly while saying, in effect, that there isn't a golfer on the planet, female or male, who scares her. "We knew that eventually there would be a generation of players who had grown up in a celebrity-driven culture and would want their day in the sun," Votaw said recently. "This is the first iteration of that."
Whether that understanding boosts women's golf remains to be seen. The benchmark is Tigermania, and while Woods has clearly pushed television ratings and drawn big galleries during his decade of dominance, the number of golfers in the U.S. is roughly 27 million, unchanged from 1995. The women's game has seen some growth--to 1.9 million, up 500,000 since 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation--but nothing like an explosion. Only a Pollyanna would predict that Wie & Co. will inspire millions of women to seek fulfillment on the fairways, but even if a boom doesn't materialize, the LPGA has to benefit from the emergence of three globe-trotting gals with universal appeal.
Prediction: All three will win at least one LPGA event in 2006, and one of them--probably Creamer--will take a major. Get ready to feel old.
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