Comment

NZ Golf’s gender bending air shot

Inviting a woman to play in the perennially all-men's NZ Golf Open field is for novelty value, not to embrace change, writes Steve Deane. 

'You can’t be half pregnant in sports promotion' is possibly not the best analogy when considering the NZ Golf Open’s decision to welcome its first female participant.

Then again, maybe it is. And maybe you can.

Certainly the NZ Open’s revelation that it is including a female player in its field for the first time in its largely inglorious history appears to be exactly that.

The ‘initiative’ that tournament director Michael Glading reportedly described as a bit of fun and novelty certainly appears an attempt to retain possession of one’s gateau despite having smothered it in whipped cream and smashed it down at morning tea.

Mid-level Swedish LPGA pro Pernilla Lindberg’s inclusion in the NZ Open field – as well as partnering with Beauden Barrett in the pro-am – is a blatant attempt to garner publicity and interest for an event that traditionally struggles to earn a reasonable share of either.

With the NZ Herald and Stuff picking up the reportable thread, it’s a case of ‘well played and job done’ in that regard.

Almost.

Glading’s carefully scripted comment: “We live in an age that is now more open than ever to new ideas and innovation", might be true, but it rather ignores that this is a card that has been played no fewer than six times, the first of which was in 1935.

That year’s LA Open remains the first and only time a woman has made the cut at a PGA tour event, with two-time Olympic track and field champion Babe Didrikson Zaharias going to toe-to-toe with the best male players of the era.

Still considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time, Didrikson Zaharias - the 1932 80m hurdles and javelin champ - entered the LA Open after being denied amateur status in golf.

She finished in the top half of the field, and would go on to win 41 professional titles in women’s golf, rounding out a sporting CV that included competing on the vaudeville circuit for the bearded House of David (commune) basketball team and dominating the US pocket billiards (aka pool) scene.

Didrikson Zaharias clearly wasn’t averse to a sports marketing shenanigan or two.

If there’s a common thread linking golf’s pioneering woman to those who have followed in her attempt to cross the gender bar - Annika Sörenstam, Suzy Whaley, Michelle Wie and Brittany Lincicome - it’s that they are all also, well, babes.

It seems unlikely that is an accident.

While clearly substantially more than just a pretty face, former teen sensation Michelle Wie’s sponsor’s exemption invite to the 2004 Hawaii Open didn’t have a huge amount to do with her golfing prowess; the much-hyped Wie has won just five LPGA titles in a 15-year career, and didn’t claim her first and only major until a decade after someone decided it was a worthwhile sporting exercise to put a pretty child up against the best male players on the planet.

Glading, of course, is correct in his observation that we live in more enlightened times. Mixed gender sports are coming into vogue. The next Olympic Games will feature mixed teams triathlon. The one after that will crown the first mixed team kiteboarding Olympic champions.

Change is upon us, no doubt.

Likewise, there is no doubt that including a female golfer in a male event for novelty value is the precise opposite of change.

The half-hearted recruitment of Lindberg as Beaudy Barrett’s dance partner feels like a missed opportunity

The NZ Golf Open is a curious beast. Our nation’s best golf courses rank among the most picturesque on the planet. These sublime-looking alpine-ringed beasts virtually demand that we muster at least one annual tournament befitting of their comeliness.

Sadly, the economics of golf are utterly prohibitive. New Zealand’s economy simply cannot muster enough wealth to redistribute via prize money to make it worthwhile for the planet’s best players to ignore the tyranny of time and distance required to play here.

So the Open, largely funded by governmental largesse, has largely pitched itself as a hub for business networking, with a particular focus on Asian titans.

The all-star pro-am is a major drawcard.

The result has been a field of lower-level aspiring pro golfers and Kiwi hacks rubbing shoulders with former international cricketers and business executives.

No doubt it would be a great crack to be a part of, but from the outside, it’s all a bit odd.

For an event that perennially struggles to define its identity, the half-hearted recruitment of Lindberg as Beaudy Barrett’s dance partner feels like a missed opportunity.

Why not go all-in – and position the event as the world’s premier mixed gender golf tournament?

If it’s really about embracing change and showcasing equality, then why not go a step further, fully committing to the formula of a brilliant female pro propping up a comparatively useless male?

Lydia Ko battling to win the NZ Open while saddled with a 36-handicapper from the Wainuiomata Golf Club would make tremendous viewing.

But that will never happen, obviously.

Because this “very special addition to the tournament” isn’t about embracing change at all. It isn’t new, isn’t unique, isn’t, in fact, much more than a desperate gimmick.  

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