Sex and the LPGA
Several games are played on the women's tour
September 10, 1981
For years Springfield, or parts if it, were proud that The Rail golf course north of town played host to a second-rank tournament on the women's professional golf circuit. (The course on which it was held, The Rail, had been designed with such a championship in mind; see here for more about The Rail.)
Women's golf in those days was a sort of beauty contest with a novel talent portion, which I found comical and unsavory in equal parts. The event struggled to find sponsors, and what was then the State Farm Rail Classic was last held in 2006.
Much had changed since 1981. The golfers had become much more skilled, and the course posed few challenges; more crucially to its commercial success, more and more of the golfers were Asian by descent, and, bang, there's goes the girl-next-door fantasy that has excited so many of the car dealers and insurance salesman who sustained it.
I'm pleased to report that in the years since 1981 the whispered innuendos about women golfers and homosexuality have stopped, because today it is acknowledged that many players are indeed gay. The tour prospers without Springfield nonetheless, and is an international attraction.
It is easy to agree with the wit who described a golf course as a waste of a perfectly good cow pasture. Every Labor Day, however, we in Springfield are expected to like golf. That's when the annual Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament is held at The Rail. The State Journal-Register the other day interrupted its editorial applause for nuclear warfare and skinning the poor long enough to extol the tournament as the best thing to happen to Springfield since Lincoln was shot. "Exciting golf fare," they called it, in what struck me as a contradiction in terms at least as vivid as "President Reagan."
I ignored the SJR's good advice and stayed at home again this year. For one thing, I regard women's athletics much as I regard decent housing for the poor—something which any fair society ought to have, but which I personally find boring as hell. But however much I dislike golf, I like sex, and this year sex has been as big a topic on the LPGA circuit as prize money.
Sex, you say? In golf? Hardly what one associates with a game in which the men wear flamingo pink pants and tassels on their shoes and the women so often look like sunburned bowlers. But back in February, Jane Blalock, the thirteen-year veteran of the women's tour, wrote an article for a Miami paper denouncing in nearly literate terms a fashion photo spread that appears in this year's LPGA tour magazine, Fairways. Four golfers were pictured, but one photo in particular galled Ms. Blalock. It shows Australian pro Jan Stephenson dressed in a long Victorian gown ("slit halfway up her butt," as Blalock charmingly described it to the New York Times) and lounging on a bed. Blalock called the shot "quasi-pornographic," and later complained that it was a throwback to the days when the LPGA used sex to sell the tour.
I am a more or less normal male, and having seen the photo in question I do not find it especially stimulating. Stephenson is a weathered thirty, and one can see more thigh on the Old Capitol Mall during lunch hour. Nor do_Üegard ivassygn quasipornographic; if anything about the LPGA is pornographic, it's the sight of overweight contestants in tight shorts rumbling up and down the fairways.
If Blalock were protecting the sexual exploitation of women on the tour I might support her, even though I think the cause to be not only hopeless but probably mistaken. Sex as a marketing tool is hardly new to either sport or the LPGA. Much of the appeal of athletics, male and female, is sexual. At its most rarefied it takes the form of aesthetic appreciation of the beauties of the human form in motion; at its most lubricious it emerges as the jiggle meets staged by Big 3 TV. Laura Baugh became maybe the best-known golfer on the tour as a result of Ultra-Brite toothpaste commercials; she's never won a tournament, but she's cute and blond (she was Golf Digest's Most Beautiful Golfer in '72) and has a body which one would not mistake for a caddy's even on a cloudy day.
But Blalock's objections apparently were not over the use of sex to peddle golf—at least not exactly. She told a UPI reporter that she didn't object to the Stephenson pic so much for what it showed as for what it suggested. But then she said, "Every woman out there should be trying to appeal to the men following her." If I understand her right, Blalock is saying that sex is okay on the golf course but not in the bedroom. That sounds pretty kinky to me, but then I'm not the outdoorsy type.
Sex is one problem on the tour, and sexism is another. It permeates the professional game. It is still common to hear sports announcers, sponsors, tournament officials, even the players themselves, refer to players as "girls," a term which, when applied to professional women in their thirties, forties, and even fifties, is inaccurate as well as demeaning. Leafing through the LPGA player guide, I was interested to learn that the LPGA commissioner, the top six staff members, and the five-person board of directors are all male, while the four-person office staff is female.
Sex and sexism come together in the LPGA's pro-am. Played the day prior to the actual tournament, the pro-am is the financial backbone of the tour. Each pro joins a foursome of local amateurs who pay $650 each for the privilege of playing a round with her. For that price the pros endure an unearned familiarity and no doubt some polite bun-pinching. The LPGA expects its members to take part, but apparently not all of them do so willingly. In the New York Times recently, Nancy Lopez-Melton said of the amateurs, "They put money in our pockets," then complained, "Some of the girls don't attend the parties that are staged at the clubs after the pro-ams are played."
Small wonder. The pro-ams are a genteel variant on a most ancient form of commerce. (I once described the pro-am to a local banker as a sort of polite prostitution. He denied it, saying with practiced condescension, "You know, some of those girls aren't that good-looking." ) The men pros play pro-ams too, but as Lopez-Melton admits, the "girls" are more "personable" than their male counterparts.
Their sexual image has long been a concern among professional female athletes. Indeed, the present controversy about players being marketed as sex objects is laden with irony. We may reasonably assume that the word "ladies" was incorporated into the tour title years ago to counterbalance the perception that women pros were not feminine enough by half. The stereotyped women golfer of the pre-Vietnam years was a mannish type of ambiguous sexuality. Many women were unfairly stigmatized by that kind of stereotype, of course, but like most stereotypes this one had enough truth in it to sustain itself. Even if the relative proportions of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and plain indifference were no different than on the tour today—a likely possibility—the risks of admitting it were reckoned a lot higher.
Today, the cultural context within which women athletes compete has changed dramatically. But attitudes about sex remain less enlightened in professional golf—that most conservative of games—than elsewhere. No one gets away with calling women tennis players "girls," for instance. Indeed, women's tennis is way ahead of golf on the whole repertoire of sexual issues, from terminology to prize money to assertions of sexual identity. I can imagine the fear that must have rippled through the LPGA leadership after Billie Jean King revealed her lesbian affair and Martina Navratilova followed it by acknowledging her bisexuality. There was nervousness over whether this particular cat, once let out of the bag by King, would turn and claw women's athletics to shreds. The concern is financial, not moral; there were reports that a major sponsor warned that if any more tennis players came out of the clubhouse about their sex company would cancel its backing of the women's tennis tour.
So far we have had no similar revelations from golfers. They would play hob with the pro-am, if only because they would complicate our own distant sexual relationships with athletes; that's why so many people react to admissions like King's so personally, almost like jilted lovers. Blalock has said, "The real thing to look for is the grace and beauty of performance." Very true. But until women play golf as well as men, they will have to sell something in addition to golf. □