Friday, April 23, 2010
Women's golf needs a star to save itself
In case you haven't heard — and many of you, I'm sure, haven't — the No. 1 women's golfer in the world is retiring. Yep, just like that. Lorena Ochoa might be a young 28, but the Mexican is leaving the LPGA tour after a career that included 27 victories, two major titles and almost $15 million in earnings.
And somewhere, someone cares.
Sadly, that is the state of women's golf today — the sport is, basically, irrelevant. Apparently, the tour's first major of the year took place a few weekends ago. I had no idea. Sure, the sport has never been extremely popular, but at least you heard about it, occasionally — like during majors — when its most accomplished player of all time Annika Sorenstam was on the course.
But since she packed away the clubs to, also, focus on her family at the end of the 2008 season, the sport has been widely ignored by the American public. Except, that is, when one name is mentioned: Michelle Wie.
I don't blame ESPN, which carries a few LPGA tournaments including majors, for overhyping Wie since she was taking geometry. At this point, she's the only chance the tour has of gaining some sort of recognition, of helping ESPN garner just decent ratings. When Wie's name is mentioned, people's ears perk up. They take a minute to stop talking about third-string offensive tackles during May and hold a brief back-and-forth:
Dude No. 1: Man, that Michelle Wie is SO overrated. Why do people even talk about her anymore?
Dude No. 2: Well, she did play in a men's tournament, drove the ball farther than some guys. She can flat-out destroy the ball!
And it's true. While Wie's career resume isn't even a page long — at age 20, she has just a single LPGA victory — her potential and marketability make her the one player, at least for now, who could boost the sport out of the oblivious crevice it's sunken into.
Ochoa was good. Even dominant at times. But she didn't have the name. Didn't have the stylish game. Wasn't about to boost TV ratings unless she did something ridiculous like win four grand slams in a row. She was the Vijay Singh of the LPGA Tour. A very good player, but no one who's going to mesmerize you.
Wie, however, could be the Serena Williams of golf. If the sport needs a model for getting much-needed coverage, it should look no further than what Williams has done for women's tennis. She's extremely good, a bit controversial and fiery — and her career has taken many downswings and upswings. She's the face of her sport, and normal sports fans, not tennis fans, tune in to watch her play because of the power and fierceness she displays on the court.
Golf, of course, isn't about "fierceness," at least not in a physical sense. But Wie fits the Williams profile in a number of ways. She burst onto the national stage at an extremely young age because of her incredible talent and a family that pushed her to be great. She had some early success — granted, not on Williams' level — which led to extremely high internal and external expectations.
But the approach nearly destroyed her career — her parents certainly deserve a lot of blame — and until a year ago, when she won her lone LPGA event, she had become an afterthought in the sports world.
The female Ryan Leaf, sadly.
Unlike Leaf, however, Wie's sports league really, really needs her to succeed for its well being. And its players know it. In a Sports Illustrated profile, which chronicled Wie's maturity while a student at Stanford, fellow LPGA players — who in the past had harshly criticized Wie for her childish behavior on and off the course — echoed each other in admitting how much the LPGA needs her to succeed and become one of the tour's main faces.
Heck, its No. 1 spokesperson.
Even today, if you ask a sports fan — but not an LPGA fan; and let's be honest, they're few and far between — to name the first LPGA player who pops into their head, they'll almost definitely say Wie. Despite her lack of success, she's the most recognizable name on tour.
So imagine the heights to which Wie could boost the flagging sport with a few major wins, with consistent success?
The tour better hope that Wie steps up her game, because for now she's its best chance of becoming relevant — of retaining its few sponsors and gaining more. Sorenstam has moved on. Ochoa, and all of her unnoticed success, has moved on.
These are desperate times for the LPGA Tour. And there's only one player, a 20-year-old, who can make sports fans pay attention again. We'll probably find out pretty soon if she can do it.