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It's time to embrace change and accept women into golf's inner circle

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

During the FBR Open, the Arizona Republic ran an article about the rough economic times golf courses had gone through for the past few years. While the number of courses grew, rounds played dropped about 4 percent from 2000 to 2003 in the Southwest.

"We need to find out what the snowboard is for golf," Ben Keilholtz, marketing director of Intrawest Golf, told the Republic.

In other words, golf needs to find some way to remake itself and attract new players the way that snowboards transformed the skiing industry.

The truth is golf already may have that "snowboard," but some in the golfing profession would like to smash it to splinters. I'm talking about women playing in PGA events. To quote Greg Norman: "... the rightful place is that women play on their tour and we play on ours."

The idea of women on the PGA tour didn't seem realistic to me either until a couple of weeks ago when I watched Michelle Wie play in the Sony Open where she beat or tied the scores of 64 men. Annika Sorenstam playing at the Colonial? That was intriguing and a credit to Annika's fabulous career, but not exactly the same.

Wie is unique: a 14-year-old girl with a lot of guts and gusto and a whole lifetime ahead of her to make cuts and take home the big money.

Although I watch a lot of PGA events, I've got to confess I rarely watch the LPGA on TV. But I sat through the entire coverage of Wie not making the cut at the Sony.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that the biggest untapped well of potential golf dollars belong to women. I've played dozens of rounds on high-ticket courses in the Phoenix area where I rarely see more than two or three women among all the men on the fairways. Why? Don't get me started. I could give you 10,000 words on that. I admit that for a woman watching Wie in action part of the thrill is feeling that payback time is here or will be soon.

Apparently, some others feel the same way about keeping track of Wie. Tom Maletis of the Tournament Golf Foundation says that attendance jumped 30 percent in the Safeway tournament in Portland last September when Wie participated. Good news for Phoenix: Wie is scheduled to play when the LPGA comes to Superstition Mountain for the Safeway International in March.

Reminds you of Tiger Woods, doesn't it, and all he did to attract new fans to golf, including more members of minority groups and younger players? Some observers complain that all those Woods fans must have tried golf and quit. Otherwise why would rounds have dropped over the past few years? But, of course, there were some other factors involved, including 9/11 and corporate scandals and the dot-com bubble.

But the economy is picking up, and the bottom line is that it's time for golf to truly market itself to 100 percent of the American market, not just 50 percent. And women competing - and maybe even winning - in the PGA could be part of that effort.

So will all the LPGA women be running over to play in the PGA and vice versa? I doubt it. But golf may have its "snowboard" - something that football, baseball and most professional sports don't have. That something is a chance for women to compete with men on the same playing field.

Remember those snowboarders when they started out? The skiers wanted to restrict them to one or two hills. It didn't work, and it's going to be tough keeping the ladies off the men's slopes, too. Maybe it's gone too far already.

Another thing about Wie: What about those hoop earrings? Imagine her playing 18 holes with those things swinging from her earlobes. Meanwhile, you've got all those guys throwing tantrums when anybody moves a muscle while they're making a putt. Says something about how seriously the men take themselves, doesn't it?

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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