The Great Experiment begins Thursday when Annika Sorenstam tees
off at the Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, becoming the first woman
in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour.
It's an intriguing idea: the best female golfer in the world,
matching shots with the men. The last time anybody tried it was
1945 when Babe Didrikson Zaharias played in the Los Angeles Open.
The greatest female athlete of her time made the 36-hole cut, but
was eliminated the next day when she shot a 79.
Since then, the PGA has been reserved for men only.
Change comes grudgingly in sports. Just ask those in whose
footsteps Sorenstam is following. Billie Jean King, ESPN.com contributor Nancy Lieberman
and Ann Meyers Drysdale heartily endorse this adventure.
It's been 30 years since King beat Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3 in the
much-hyped ''Battle of the Sexes'' -- one of the defining moments in
the women's sports movement. King was goaded into that match by
Riggs, a hustler by nature, and she buttoned his lip rather
Sorenstam's challenge is different. Nobody dared her to walk 18
holes with the guys.
''I think it's great that she chose to do this,'' King said.
''The world is going to appreciate her a lot more. I think this is
also an incredible challenge to her. She wants to get an idea how
she can really do. For the LPGA and women's sports, I hope she's
embracing that thought in how to elevate the recognition for
Sorenstam is not eager to be a symbol.
''I'm doing it just for personal reasons,'' she said. ''I'm
curious to see how I'll do, and if I raise the level of women's
golf that's a bonus. But this really is just for me.''
Meyers understands that.
In 1979, the UCLA All-American was getting ready for the Olympic
trials and looking for other basketball options when owner Sam
Nassi invited her to try out for the NBA's Indiana Pacers,
sweetening the idea with a $50,000 personal services contract.
''How do you turn it down?'' Meyers said. ''It's a wonderful
opportunity to test yourself. What better motivation is there than
people telling you you can't do it. The Pacers asked me, I didn't
solicit it. You never want to look back and say, 'What if?'''
Meyers had been around basketball all her life, playing with her
brother, Dave, a UCLA All-American and later an NBA player.
She had no fear.
''Mentally, emotionally and physically, it was the best I was
ever prepared,'' she said.
Caught in the middle was basketball lifer Slick Leonard, then
coach of the Pacers and now the team's broadcaster. He viewed it as
a publicity stunt.
''It turned into a circus atmosphere,'' he said. ''It was tough.
I didn't want to do it, but who am I to deny the opportunity? I
either do it or find another job.
''She was an excellent player, but from a physical standpoint,
there was no way. She had skills. She could have made male college
teams, but not the NBA, where you're going against the best in the
Meyers was an early cut, done after three days of two-a-day
''I felt I should have gone on,'' she said. ''I wasn't going to
put the Pacers in an embarrassing situation. Slick was concerned
for my safety. I applaud the Pacers for taking a chance.''
Meyers thought it was more difficult for the other players than
it was for her. If they scored on her, well, they were playing
against a girl. And if she scored on them, well, imagine the
Lieberman spent two seasons in the USBL, playing against men.
''There are no negatives,'' she said of Sorenstam. ''It's all
positive. She's trying to raise her bar. She's not going against
some guy who's 7-feet, 260 pounds, blocking her shots. I had
Lieberman's choice was clear. Equipped with an Olympic gold
medal and an All-American reputation at Old Dominion, it was either
play in Europe or not play at all. She found a third option --
basketball's minor leagues against NBA types such as Manute Bol,
Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues.
''I was well-known,'' she said. ''Guys respected me because I
had some history. We competed day after day. They knew I had some
deficiencies. I was 5-10, 150 and female. But I understood the
game, making passes, making decisions, seeing the game different
''This was the minor leagues. We all had deficiencies. Mine were
hunk and gender. I had to share the same locker. It was tough. I
was in their world. This was the opportunity to play ball. I didn't
care if it was men or women. I wanted a chance to get on the
King, Meyers and Lieberman all agreed that one tournament would
not be a fair test for Sorenstam.
''She's got to stay focused on playing golf,'' Lieberman said.
''That's her biggest challenge. If she shoots 68, they'll say,
'That's amazing.' If she shoots 78, they'll say, 'See, she can't
play with the boys.'
''If she plays six or seven or eight tournaments the guys would
see the things that make her so good. It's a wonderful opportunity
to challenge herself. But don't judge her on one tournament.''
''She'll beat some guys,'' Meyers said. ''Others will beat her.
She won't shoot 10-under. If she does, great. Let's put her on tour
for the whole year and then let's see what happens.''
This won't end at the Colonial.
Suzy Whaley qualified for the Greater Hartford Open by winning a
PGA sectional. In two months, she too will be swinging against the