Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Sally Jenkins wrote about Michelle Wie yesterday:
To review: Wie, a ninth-grader, shot rounds of 72 and 68, including two birdies in her last three holes, at Waialae Country Club to force the collective jaw of the tour agape. "I'm sorry, I'm confused," ESPN announcer Ian Baker-Finch said after watching Wie consistently rip tee shots 30 yards past adult males who make their livings on the tour. "This is a 14-year-old girl?" Among those in the Sony field were six of the top eight players in the world, including Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Davis Love III.
In the history of sports, this really is jaw-dropping.
So where does Wie leave us? Now what?
Do women really want to compete with guys? For a lot of us non-ideologues, the honest and emphatically un-rhetorical answer is, "Not really." Why not? Because we don't want to butt heads with a lot of guys, that's why. But I'm last generation, and Wie is next generation, and Wie is the future. What makes her elders, men and women alike, uncomfortable doesn't seem to make Wie uncomfortable in the slightest. "I never felt out of place," she said.
I was a bit put off by Wie's comments. The (splendid) arrogance of youth, assuming it belongs. Of course in Wie's case, she really does have the game and I can't think of any physical reason why she couldn't qualify for a PGA event sooner or later (as opposed to getting the free pass of the sponsor's exemption). But before we get to that, Jenkins makes what I think is a pretty basic error, talking about the incredible strides that female athletes have made in recent years:
In her study of biological politics, "Woman," [Natalie] Angier cites a study by a couple of researchers at UCLA in 1992 that looked at the improvement of female runners over 50 years. They found that women's performances have accelerated at two and three times the rate of men's. Example: In 1954, when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, Diane Leather broke the five-minute mile. She would have finished 320 meters behind Bannister in a head-to-head race. In 1993, the female world champion miler would have finished only 180 meters behind the top man. "The data," Angier wrote, "won't shut up."
Well, of course. Historically speaking, women didn't compete and commit to rigorous physical training until this very moment. Of course their performance has accelerated at a faster pace than men's. On a scale of one to ten, they started at two; men started at 8. If Jenkins thinks women are on course to equal men on average, she's mistaken.
"Women routinely outperform men in physical activity, and I'm not talking about ballet," [a college professor] says. But we don't particularly notice, [she] says, because women are usually placed in the limiting context of the most elite male performances in the sports pages and on ESPN. For instance, if a top female runner competes in the New York City Marathon, and finishes 60th overall, we tend to focus on the fact that she finished behind 59 men. What we don't notice and don't report is that she dusted 3,500 other male runners.
Um, the top female runner dusts 3,500 average-to-pathetic runners. Your point?
But back to Wie. The fact that most women on average will continue to lag most men athletically doesn't mean that an exceptionally gifted athlete like Wie won't blow the doors open. I think she can do it. But should she?
Michelle Wie is in an unprecedented position, completely unlike the fraudulent admittance of Suzy Whaley, who gained entry to the Greater Hartford Open by winning a qualifier from shorter women's tees. Wie--and last year, Annika Sorenstam at the Colonial--have teed off via sponsor's exemptions, but pretty soon I don't think even that will be necessary for Wie.
But I wince at the ease with which many pundits don't even bother to consider the equity issues here. It's a kind of left-over chivalry, enforced by the gender wardens. Gentlemen used to surrender seats in streetcars to women; today we vow to preserve the all-women's LPGA but open the PGA's door to women who, let's admit it, in the person of Michelle Wie, gives every indication she'll be able to handle competition against the best players in the world.
Who are men.
So I have two conclusions. One, the LPGA increasingly will be seen as a second-rate tour. If the best female players begin to regularly appear on the PGA, that's the inescapable conclusion.
But second, what the heck is Wie supposed to do, anyway? If she remains on the same trajectory, the way that Tiger Woods did, playing on the LPGA would be a waste of her time and her talent.
May we live in interesting times.