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Women vs. Men in Golf: Automatic Bids or Special Favors?

By: Jay Flemma


I usually ignore anonymous emails and comments, but this one I received recently brings into sharp relief the terms of a current, vehement debate. It came in response to the assertion I have put forth several times in this website that the winner of the Women’s U.S. Open should get an automatic bid to the U.S. Open or that the winner of the LPGA Championship should get an automatic bid to the PGA Championship. Here it is, in its entirety:

“The US Women’s Open Champion has absolutely no business getting a U.S. Open exemption. It’s barely arguable that she has better credentials than the winner of the U.S. Amateur. The U.S. Amateur is played mostly on a U.S. Open-worthy course, with a setup similar to a U.S. Open, and played at a yardage similar to a U.S. Open. The U.S. Women’s Open has none of these similarities.

“Annika’s one time failure and Michelle Wie’s repeated ‘dog & pony show’ should be all the evidence that is needed to make the case against allowing the winner of the Women’s Open anywhere near an exemption into the U.S. Open.

“It would not have been funny to watch recent Women’s Open champ Hillary Lunke attempt to play a U.S. Open course. Her average driving distance is 236 yards. What good would it do the LPGA to have their Open champ not be able to reach several holes in regulation?” [Anonymous]

Let’s dissect these myths one by one.

1. “It’s barely arguable she has better credentials than the winner of the U.S. Amateur”

The winner of the Women’s Open is always a touring professional, someone making their living playing the game competitively. Almost always, she is a seasoned veteran. Occasionally, not “often,” but occasionally you get a weird winner like a Birdie Kim or a Hillary Lunke, but even then, these are people week in and week out competing for a paycheck at the highest level. The winner of the Men’s Amateur is someone who wants to make his living earning a weekly paycheck playing the game at the highest level. Yes, his game is probably longer. But his mental toughness is equal to if not less than the seasoned female veteran whose game is honed by the weekly competition on tour.

The Amateur winner aside, the following people also get an exemption to the U.S. Open:

A) The winner of the U.S. Senior Open – his length is not what it used to be too. To offer him an exemption, but not the Women’s Open winner, cannot be defended on any other grounds.

B) Two top players from the Japan Tour Money List (provided that he is in the top 75 in the world money list) – the Japan Tour gets two, the LPGA gets zero? How is that fair?

C) Two top players form the Australian Tour money list (same top-75 proviso) – see the Japan Tour reaction above.

2. “The US Amateur is played mostly on a U.S. Open-worthy course, with a setup similar to a U.S. Open, and played at a yardage similar to a U.S. Open. The U.S. Women’s Open has none of these similarities.”

Guess again. Blackwolf Run anyone? Or Cherry Hills? Sure, they were not long, but the setup was every bit a gauntlet and a grueling test. The same ankle-high rough, the same Bandaid-wide fairways, the same Glimmerglass-ice for greens. Sure, it’s not as long/ But the issue is not whether she would be competitive, the issue is she should get the exemption as a reward for her victory. It takes back room exemptions given to “stars” and turns the issue of women playing on the PGA Tour into a meritocracy, which is the heart of the game. Besides, just think how epic it would be when the first women qualifier actually does make the cut.

3. “It would not have been funny to watch recent Women’s Open champ Hillary Lunke attempt to play a U.S. Open course. Her average driving distance is 236 yards. What good would it do the LPGA to have their Open champ not be able to reach several holes in regulation?”

This is fair comment. Assuming just for a moment – without conceding it mind you – that the difficulty of the Men’s Open coupled with adamant refusal to change would make it an exercise in futility for a woman to make the cut, the setup of the PGA Championship is another matter entirely.

Sure the course is long, but recent aggregate scores show the course to be friendly to birdies. This year 19-under par won. In 2004, 10 under won. David Toms broke Nicklaus’s aggregate scoring record in 2001 at -15. The LPGA champion would have little difficulty in getting around on the PGA Championship course. Moreover, if we give a large number of club pros – guys who do NOT play competitively for a living – fistfuls of free passes, we can find room for one woman who does play week in and week out who also won the flagship event of her tour.

There is one other argument in favor of granting the LPGA champion the automatic bid to the PGA over the USGA counterpart. The Women’s Open is help the week after the men’s. Instead of getting ready to compete in the Open, spending the week prior in such a crucible could have a negative effect on the winner defending her title the next week. The problem is obviated with the PGA-LPGA Championship argument since the LPGA Championship is early in the year, and the appearance at the PGA Championship would be many months later and not during a critical LPGA Tour stop.

All in all, it’s time to take the issue out of smoke-filled back rooms full of dirty money and traded favors and turn it into a meritocracy. We offer exemptions to males clearly inferior to the best of the LPGA Tour. That should change. We also avoid the appearance of playing favorites. Finally, if people are so hellbent on integrating the Tour (which, despite Ron Sirak’s affirmation to the contrary, will not happen in 12 years), the way to do it is by selecting the players who truly deserve it – not being sold a false bill of goods by slick marketers and gender warriors who understand little about the game.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.blogspot.com, Jay Flemma’s comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America’s great public golf courses (and whether they’re worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf – or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.