Sorenstam following in some big footsteps

Updated: May 19, 2003, 2:02 AM ET
Associated Press

The Great Experiment begins Thursday when Annika Sorenstam tees off at the Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, becoming the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour.

Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam will go tee-to-tee with the men this week at the Colonial.

It's an intriguing idea: the best female golfer in the world, matching shots with the men. The last time anybody tried it was 1945 when Babe Didrikson Zaharias played in the Los Angeles Open. The greatest female athlete of her time made the 36-hole cut, but was eliminated the next day when she shot a 79.

Since then, the PGA has been reserved for men only.

Change comes grudgingly in sports. Just ask those in whose footsteps Sorenstam is following. Billie Jean King, ESPN.com contributor Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers Drysdale heartily endorse this adventure.

It's been 30 years since King beat Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3 in the much-hyped ''Battle of the Sexes'' -- one of the defining moments in the women's sports movement. King was goaded into that match by Riggs, a hustler by nature, and she buttoned his lip rather decisively.

Sorenstam's challenge is different. Nobody dared her to walk 18 holes with the guys.

''I think it's great that she chose to do this,'' King said. ''The world is going to appreciate her a lot more. I think this is also an incredible challenge to her. She wants to get an idea how she can really do. For the LPGA and women's sports, I hope she's embracing that thought in how to elevate the recognition for women's sports.''

Sorenstam is not eager to be a symbol.

''I'm doing it just for personal reasons,'' she said. ''I'm curious to see how I'll do, and if I raise the level of women's golf that's a bonus. But this really is just for me.''

Meyers understands that.

In 1979, the UCLA All-American was getting ready for the Olympic trials and looking for other basketball options when owner Sam Nassi invited her to try out for the NBA's Indiana Pacers, sweetening the idea with a $50,000 personal services contract.

''How do you turn it down?'' Meyers said. ''It's a wonderful opportunity to test yourself. What better motivation is there than people telling you you can't do it. The Pacers asked me, I didn't solicit it. You never want to look back and say, 'What if?'''

Meyers had been around basketball all her life, playing with her brother, Dave, a UCLA All-American and later an NBA player.

She had no fear.

''Mentally, emotionally and physically, it was the best I was ever prepared,'' she said.

Caught in the middle was basketball lifer Slick Leonard, then coach of the Pacers and now the team's broadcaster. He viewed it as a publicity stunt.

''It turned into a circus atmosphere,'' he said. ''It was tough. I didn't want to do it, but who am I to deny the opportunity? I either do it or find another job.

''She was an excellent player, but from a physical standpoint, there was no way. She had skills. She could have made male college teams, but not the NBA, where you're going against the best in the world.''

Meyers was an early cut, done after three days of two-a-day practices.

''I felt I should have gone on,'' she said. ''I wasn't going to put the Pacers in an embarrassing situation. Slick was concerned for my safety. I applaud the Pacers for taking a chance.''

Meyers thought it was more difficult for the other players than it was for her. If they scored on her, well, they were playing against a girl. And if she scored on them, well, imagine the embarrassment.

Lieberman spent two seasons in the USBL, playing against men.

''There are no negatives,'' she said of Sorenstam. ''It's all positive. She's trying to raise her bar. She's not going against some guy who's 7-feet, 260 pounds, blocking her shots. I had different obstacles.''

Lieberman's choice was clear. Equipped with an Olympic gold medal and an All-American reputation at Old Dominion, it was either play in Europe or not play at all. She found a third option -- basketball's minor leagues against NBA types such as Manute Bol, Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues.

''I was well-known,'' she said. ''Guys respected me because I had some history. We competed day after day. They knew I had some deficiencies. I was 5-10, 150 and female. But I understood the game, making passes, making decisions, seeing the game different from you.

''This was the minor leagues. We all had deficiencies. Mine were hunk and gender. I had to share the same locker. It was tough. I was in their world. This was the opportunity to play ball. I didn't care if it was men or women. I wanted a chance to get on the court.''

King, Meyers and Lieberman all agreed that one tournament would not be a fair test for Sorenstam.

''She's got to stay focused on playing golf,'' Lieberman said. ''That's her biggest challenge. If she shoots 68, they'll say, 'That's amazing.' If she shoots 78, they'll say, 'See, she can't play with the boys.'

''If she plays six or seven or eight tournaments the guys would see the things that make her so good. It's a wonderful opportunity to challenge herself. But don't judge her on one tournament.''

''She'll beat some guys,'' Meyers said. ''Others will beat her. She won't shoot 10-under. If she does, great. Let's put her on tour for the whole year and then let's see what happens.''

This won't end at the Colonial.

Suzy Whaley qualified for the Greater Hartford Open by winning a PGA sectional. In two months, she too will be swinging against the guys.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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