There was a time when the ladies of the LPGA were...well, they were ladies, all right. But they usually weren't making fashion statements. The big-time lady golfers weren't usually considered babes, as we understand that term. They were female athletes who were typical in their own way: Maybe a little big-boned, not particularly attractive, their bodies geared more toward playing a demanding 18 holes and raising a glass of beer than doing photo shoots.
When Nancy Lopez (left) became a force in golf almost 30 years ago, she was a phenomenon of sorts. She was different because she was Latina, and she was a great player, but she never really captured the broader public imagination the way someone like Australian Jan Stephenson eventually did.
Stephenson (pictured below, now in her early 50s) got attention because she was very attractive, and for a while there it looked like golf would finally have a superstar jock babe. She even posed once in a bathtub filled with golf balls. Alas, Stephenson, despite some good golf—scoring major victories in the 1983 U.S. Women's Open and the 1982 LPGA Championship—seemed to ultimately earn the disrespect of her peers. Then, when her game turned mediocre, her looks didn't matter.
Remnants of the old school still linger today with players like Laura Davies and Meg Mallon chugging up and down the course, sort of the distaff version of John Daly. They're still fun to watch when they're hitting the ball well, but neither is going to make a splash in Hollywood. However, things are definitely changing.
What ladies golf needed to inject color and flash and the potential for sex appeal into its game was youthful players who not only had talent but would still be considered cute as a button simply because they were so young. It's happened, too, in the person of a quartet of gifted youngsters who should be around for a while. Michelle Wie (16), Morgan Pressel (17), Paula Creamer (18) and Natalie Gulbis (22) have, in their own not-insignificant way, made ladies golf an appealing spectator sport even for those who formerly hardly gave the game a passing glance. Yeah, they can play all right. Hurray for that. But also, they're not afraid to wear skirts (why would you be with supple gams like that?), they like to wear eye-catching, bobbly earrings that accent their femininity, and they all look pretty in pink, which makes the statement, "We're appealing young girls, and we don't mind letting the world know it."
With television an ever-more-powerful conduit for golf exposure, these gals have come onto the scene, not like Nicklaus or Woods, but more like Charlie's Angels. They're poised with the press, they don't appear cowed by their competitive elders, and they're all so young that their best years of golf are well ahead of them.
Gulbis (left) is already ahead of her younger confreres in the marketing game, having done calendar shoots and running a big Web site and hanging out with football players like Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. Her game is improving, though, and with her tie for fourth in this week's Samsung World Championship, her winnings neared the $1 million mark for 2005 (and that's without even a victory).
Not to be outdone, Creamer (right) took second in the same tourney.
Wie (left) had a controversial finish in the same event, but that still didn't stop her from proving what a talented young golfer we already knew her to be. Pressel (below) currently is projecting more charm than killer instinct, but she's definitely a player to watch.
At any rate, the babes are making monitoring ladies golf a higher-interest activity for a lot more people, especially men. Add to that the strong international flavor that young Asian players are bringing to the game—all surnamed Park, it seems—and it's clear to see that the old days of former workmanlike blue-collar greats like Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth (who operated without flash) are long gone. (The aforementioned Stephenson, still courting controversy, was quoted not too long ago as saying that the ladies' game needed more sex appeal, but also fewer Asians. Make of that what you will.)
This is not to say that we spectating, couch-potato-ish slobs don't appreciate a great golfer like Annika Sorenstam (below, left), now a grand old dame at the ripe age of 35. Annika still holds our interest, with her youthful, determined stride and her bobbing, tomboyish ponytail and her sensible yet very stylish shoes. She's still the queen of the game, and it's way too early to pronounce her a frump. The youngsters have a way to go to de-throne Annika, and her convincing 8-stroke victory in the Samsung makes it clear that girlishness and bloom-of-youth good looks aren't everything.
But they sure don't hurt, either.