What Annika Started

Sure, I'll support women playing in PGA Tour events‹if and when they qualify.

By Greg Norman

Earlier this year, a question was posed to me at the start of the Heineken Classic about Laura Davies participating in the ANZ Championship in Australia, a cosanctioned European Tour event. I didn't think it was a good idea, and said so, in what I thought was fairly benign language. I soon realized, however, that my reply quickly circled the globe. As is often the case, assumptions were made regarding my comments. I'd like to take this opportunity to expand on them.

Perhaps my thoughts on the matter are by-products of my approach to the game of golf, which is both pure and traditional. Simply stated, I do not deem it appropriate, generally speaking, for women to play in men's professional events, nor do I deem it appropriate for men to play in women's events. There are separate professional tours for men and women for a reason: If either gender could play either tour, you'd rarely get to see women play--there are just too many good male players. Gender-specific golf tours have flourished for years, and I know of no reason they should not continue to do so. Yes, exceptions can be made for women to play in men's events, but they ought to be in response to extraordinary circumstances--such as those of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam last year and, possibly, Michelle Wie in the future. What concern me are exceptions being made for no reason other than the attendant publicity.

Basically, I think anyone who participates in a professional event should earn his or her stripes. There are qualifying criteria for every pro tour, and opportunities exist on myriad fronts to earn one's way into a particular tournament. For example, there are Monday qualifiers for PGA Tour events that attract a large group of local talent and professionals looking for an opportunity. These guys grind it out for one of the available spots in that week's event. Every once in a while a Monday qualifier will string together a few solid rounds, earn a hefty check and perhaps even play his way into future events. That's what it's all about. Then there's the PGA Tour Qualifying School, which attracts a mix of young talent, veterans who have lost their playing privileges and those without much of a resume hoping to catch a few breaks. Neither of these formats requires players to be male.

So to those female participants who want to be seen as legitimate competitors, I say, first off, why not do what has been done for ages--earn your way on by means of Monday qualifying or PGA Tour Qualifying School? Yes, there are players talented and fortunate enough to bypass those means through sponsors' exemptions, but only those who then prove themselves worthy of those exemptions actually end up on Tour. Tiger Woods is a perfect example. He turned professional after a remarkable amateur career and then took full advantage of sponsors' exemptions. I took a similar path, proving myself in Australia and Europe before joining the PGA Tour in 1983--a full seven years after I turned pro.

Annika Sorenstam, notably, accepted a sponsor's exemption to the 2003 Bank of America Colonial. At the outset, she claimed that for her it was simply an experiment to see how she would stack up against the best male players in the world. And I admit that, in the beginning, I was not in favor of Annika playing, because I thought it was a stunt, not a legitimate attempt at competing at the highest level.

However, I will also admit that I grew appreciative of how Annika approached the situation and how she handled herself during the first two rounds. Already by far the best female player on the planet, she went above and beyond her normal workout and practice routines in an attempt to fine-tune her game in preparation for the tournament. She chose a golf course that suited her style and was in what she called the best playing shape of her life when she stepped onto the first tee that Thursday morning.

I think, though, that events since Annika's participation have become sensationalized. I'm fearful that sponsors' exemptions are becoming far too promotionally driven and too gratuitously extended. So, when a reporter asked me about Laura Davies becoming the first female to participate in a European Tour-sanctioned event, I answered honestly and, as it turned out, accurately. This is by no means intended as a shot at Laura, but by her own admission she had not played golf in eight weeks and was not in form. She missed the cut by a huge margin. No one could conclude that her participation was good for golf, including, I might add, Laura, who candidly admitted to being in over her head.

Annika opened the door, and as far as I'm concerned that door can remain open, as long as those who walk through it are deserving. I'm not sure how to define what is acceptable participation, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once quipped about a different issue, "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it." In this matter, I don't have all the answers, but I know when such an invitation appears to be legitimate. Of course, it's not my job to define these sorts of things. That burden rests squarely on the shoulders of the administrators of the various professional tours.

As yet, the Tour hasn't come forth with a policy, choosing instead the ostrich philosophy, because this is a difficult issue and one I'm sure the Tour hopes will simply disappear. Look, the Tour did the right thing prior to the 2004 season by significantly altering sponsor-exemption criteria. There were a couple of instances when former NFL or NHL stars were offered spots in PGA Tour events when they certainly didn't have the game to compete. In an attempt to limit unjustified exemptions, the Tour changed its handicap requirement from two to zero. So if a tournament has four unrestricted exemptions at its disposal, they have to go to players who can demonstrate a zero handicap. While that's a start, the Tour is still devoid of a policy, which, in turn, puts the issue into public debate.

The crux of this whole matter isn't that I'm against women playing on the PGA Tour. It's that I'm against anyone of either gender being granted an exemption purely as a publicity stunt. I want what's best for golf, and I don't think these gimmicks are doing one bit of good to promote the game that we all love. The bottom line, and let me be very clear about this, is that if a woman wants to go out and earn her way into an event or onto the PGA Tour by way of its established qualifying criteria, and she does so successfully, I'm all for it. If Michelle Wie pulls it off, for example, I will welcome her--as I would anyone else.

My comments at the Heineken Classic, in this column and in any subsequent discussions are simply me being honest about my feelings, which are driven by what I believe is good for the game. There can't be many people who love golf more than I do, and I will always do everything I can to uphold the spirit and traditions of the game, even if following my heart occasionally risks going against the grain.

Free Golf At Sandals Emerald Bay