By KAREN CROUSE
England’s Charley Hull is among British athletes who have been enjoying success this summer.
British sports are in the midst of a glorious Indian summer, the tennis player Andy Murray’s victory in theUnited States Open final taking place on the same day Britain’s 65 Olympic medalists and 120 Paralympic medalists were honored in a London parade. Then the best golfers in the world descended on Royal Liverpool Golf Club for the Women’s British Open, the year’s final major.
Holding the tournament on the course where Tiger Woods was crowned the 2006 British Open champion is seen as a significant sign of progress, a symbol of the rising stature of the women’s game.
“For people watching overseas, when they see us playing the courses the men played, it definitely adds to the prestige of the event,” said Catriona Matthew, a Scotswoman who won the 2009 Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes, the site of Ernie Els’s victory in this year’s men’s event.
Playing the best courses may raise the profile of the women’s game’s among golf enthusiasts, but a vaster world remains for them to wake up, if not win over. The Olympics in London gave the golfers, especially the Britons, a glimpse of the exciting possibilities for their sport’s future when it rejoins the Olympic program in 2016.
“It’s obviously not going to be our main event like it is for athletics,” said Melissa Reid, a 24-year-old Briton, “but I think the showcase of an Olympic Games is going to help women’s golf. I think so many people who aren’t sports fans tune into the Olympic Games that I really do feel that it’s going to do British golf, European golf, a lot, a lot of good.”
The men need less help; led by No. 1 Rory McIlroy, British players occupy four of the top nine spots in the world rankings. Reid, who won a Ladies European Tour event this year in Prague, is the second-highest-ranked British golfer at No. 54, behind No. 24 Matthew. She pointed to women’s soccer, which commanded front-page headlines in Britain during the Olympics after receiving scant coverage a year earlier during the Women’s World Cup.
In the afterglow of the Olympics, it is easy to forget that women’s soccer was banned in Britain for 50 years, until 1971, because it was deemed an unsuitable outlet for women. Echoing that sentiment is a sign that Reid says still hangs outside the clubhouse at Royal Troon Golf Club: “No Dogs or Women Allowed.”
“I think that the Olympic Games was a great opportunity to show the world how good women’s football is,” Reid said. “It’s come such a long way in five or six years. I feel the same with golf, really, especially in Europe.”
The leading money winner on the Ladies European Tour is Carly Booth, a 20-year-old from Scotland who has two victories in 2012. Booth is the British Isles’ answer to the American Michelle Wie. At 11, Booth became the youngest club champion in Britain while playing at Dunblane, the home of Murray. At 14, she played in her first professional event, the Ladies Scottish Open, and finished 13th.
She will soon be joined in the pro ranks by 16-year-old Charley Hull, who is from the same English club as the European Ryder Cup team member Ian Poulter. In addition to Booth, the Women’s British Open field includes two other precocious pro event winners: Lydia Ko, 15, from New Zealand, and Lexi Thompson, 17, from the United States.
The South Korea-born Ko, who won last month’s United States Women’s Amateur and Canadian Women’s Open, teed off Thursday in the group ahead of Matthew and drew the larger gallery.
Like Matthew, Ko was introduced to golf when she was 5. Matthew played other sports until her midteens, but Ko has pursued golf to the exclusion of all other endeavors. Even her schooling takes a back seat, although Ko, who dreams of attending Stanford, said last week that she hoped to spend the next couple of months reconnecting with school friends and catching up on class work.
The specialization at a young age is one explanation for the teenage power on the leader board that is threatening to turn this event into the Lasses’ British Open. The former touring pro Frank Nobilo, a New Zealander who has followed Ko’s progress, cited technology as another.
“The reason some of these youngsters are playing so well is the use of video,” said Nobilo, an analyst for the Golf Channel. “You try and explain the technical aspects of the swing to an 8- or 9-year-old, and they’re not going to understand it. But you can show them with video or show them other swings, and kids learn so quickly by imitation. I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of those 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds that aren’t just good but have really good golf swings.”
Long before “American Idol,” the Olympics was creating female stars out of talented teenagers like Donna de Varona and Nadia Comaneci. In contrast to a hidebound sport like golf, gender matters less in the Olympics than geography. The news media cover and the public cheer for the best stories and performers from their countries without discrimination.
“I think every golfer wants to be on their nationality’s team for the Olympics,” the British veteran Laura Davies said. “Why wouldn’t you? It’s the greatest show on earth.”
With greater visibility comes an increase in sponsorships and other financing, an area in which female golfers lag far behind their male counterparts.
“It’s a Catch-22, especially in Europe really,” Reid said, “where we have a fantastic draw, but we need more money to get the facilities, yet we need the facilities to get more money. I think it’s going to get better with the Olympics.”
Davies, 48, says she accepts the status quo even though she does not agree with it. Women’s sports, she said, “will always be sort of the second division because that’s the way television companies and corporations deal with women’s sport.”
“It’s always about the men, and then the women come second. But that’s never going to change, let’s face it.”
Ko, Hull and Thompson are too young to feel that way. They are among the generation of players coming of age at the perfect time for women’s golf to shine.