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Sunday, June 15, 2014

US Women's Open: The Grand Vision

LPGA Founders & Pioneers.
Photo Credit:
They don't appear very dangerous or subversive, these thirteen women who challenged prevailing notions about true womanhood and athleticism more than half a century ago.  They could have been any group of club women -- bankers' and doctors' wives, perhaps -- gathered for a group photo taken with somebody's box Brownie after their Thursday golf round at the local country club.  The sweater sets are a nice touch.

To be sure, there are thirteen personal stories behind this snapshot, brought together and united around an extraordinary and thickly textured vision that has shaped and continues to define opportunities for women to participate in competitive athletics at many different social levels.

Kate Hepburn, who displayed a very competent golf swing in Pat and Mike, herself a sportswoman of not inconsiderable skill, unmasked the inner struggles these publicly strong and determined women waged to claim and secure the competitive space where women now play golf.  It's their most valuable legacy.

Make no mistake: there was a significant pice tag attached to their struggle.  Relationships were lost, secure and respectable futures were sacrificed, public reputations -- the bread and butter of 1950s American womanhood -- were put on the line in order to play golf for money.

2014 US Curtis Cup Team.
Photo Credit: USGA/Steven Gibbons
But what an incredible payoff!  Such wonderfully rich dividends have come from their investment:

Collegiate golf, nurtured from the outset by the Founders through the LPGA teaching division, was the first sport opened to women and it came long before Title IX mandated gender equality in athletics.  The institutional affiliations of the 2014 American Curtis Cup team -- University of California, UCLA, Stanford, Clemson, University of Alabama, Mississippi State -- attests to LPGA teaching division success.

Pre-tournament Pro-Am events, initially created to increased interest in early LPGA events, are a staple in the public relations repertoire of contemporary tournaments.

Flex-shafts and soft balls -- equipment modifications designed for women's gentler swings -- come from the Founders' early affiliations with sporting goods manufacturers.  All of us have been the beneficiaries.

Sunday on the range at Pinehurst.  Photo credit: LPGA
And the centerpiece, a US Women's Open!

Initially barely able to sustain itself, LPGA members personally recruiting, badgering, luring entrants from the amateur ranks, now regarded as the premier event in the US women's golf season, managed by the USGA, so popular that the USGA held 24 qualifying events, four of them international, to winnow down the enormous field of women eligible to compete either by professional status or an amateur handicap of 2.4 or lower.

On Sunday, while the men finished their final round, there were Women's Open players everywhere, making their preparations.  Lydia Ko sat on a hillock and took notes.  Lexi Thompson walked the course with one of the final groups.  Natalie Gulbis and Inbee Park took advantage of the practice facilities, Gulbis confiding she felt a bit nervous tossing down her bucket of balls alongside Lefty and Rory and Adam Scott.

All this -- a US Women's Open that's on equal footing with the men's (although The Babe would make public note of the persistent substantial difference in purse sizes), played at the cradle of American golf, is exactly what those thirteen women worked for.  They had an enormous vision.