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FORGET RUBEN, CLAY; TRY ANNIKA.

Byline: TOM HOFFARTH The Media

The media actually started this whole mess, pitching the innocent question to Annika Sorenstam a few months ago.

Back in December, Suzy Whaley, who earlier became the first woman to qualify to play in a PGA Tour event, notified those at the Greater Hartford Open she'd be open to play in their event in July.

Since she's doing it, would you be interested in playing in a men's event if you were invited? Sorenstam said it would be just peachy.

The folks at the Colonial read the quote and offered the challenge. She accepted in January. And the media, those on course and on the fringe, have had a field day since.

``It started innocently,'' said LPGA Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan, an analyst for USA Network. ``Then it became an avalanche that got out of hand.''

Or, as Tony Kornsheiser cleverly put it on a recent episode of ESPN's ``Pardon the Interruption,'' it's a story that has legs.

Helping elevate her to ``superstar' status, as on-course commentator David Feherty gushed on the backside of her round Thursday, USA Network had the honors of carrying the four-hour-plus moment in time (with extensive help from the CBS golf production and announcing team) using every blimp shot and hand-held camera available.

Popping in just before 7 a.m. PDT, Sorenstam only seemed to be on screen a good four minutes out of every five during the morning block. A New York Times columnist actually kept count - 31 minutes, 41 seconds during the 4 hours, 19 minutes of her round, making 387 appearances in either live or taped shots.

Every one of her shots made it on air, almost all of them live, although those on tape never were admitted to.

As Bill Macatee, Peter Kostis and Sheehan held the story line together from their stationary booth, it was the usually pithy Feherty who continually punctuated the moments with the captions he put on the moving pictures. He became her biggest TV cheerleader.

As Sorenstam teed off on No. 4, sitting 1-under through 12 holes, her shot landing on the green at the par 3, Feherty was saying: ``I'm ashamed to admit it as a man, I'm just getting to know her right now, but there are millions of people I believe starting to understand who Annika Sorenstam is right now.''

Sheehan responded: ``It's about time people learn what Annika's all about because after winning 13 tournaments worldwide last season, I don't think she got the respect that she deserved nor the media coverage.''

That wasn't a problem Thursday.

Forget Ruben or Clay - Annika is America's TV idol with instant celebrity status for the weekend tee party ahead.

Aside from the reported 623 credentialed reporters on the scene, the TV's eye was as meticulous about not letting Sorenstam out of its sight as she was with her game, capturing her facial expressions and body language for all to absorb and get caught up in the moment. Which Feherty often did.

``In the men's game, we don't see enough of that kind of attitude,'' Feherty said. ``She's so open, and everyone coming here has fallen in love with the way she conducts herself.''

Just then, after making par on the fourth, Sorenstam took a jog off the course, seeking relief of another kind.

``I think I know where she's running to,'' Sheehan said.

Fortunately, Feherty didn't elaborate.

--Media fears: Before the tournament began, CBS and USA Network commentators expressed some reservations about how the media would react to this event.

``We've got sports-talk radio and `Sports Reporters' and `Around the Horns' where the panelists are trying to become a little more quotable or outrageous, and it's happening in all forms of the media,'' said CBS' Jim Nantz, noting some commentators ``went across the line'' in criticizing Vijay Singh's heritage after he made public his opinions about Sorenstam's appearance.

``I hope the focus, if she plays well or not, is not to run to the men's locker and see who'll grumble and create a firestorm. Then the game suffers. I'd like it to be a huge positive experience.''

Kostis added: ``Everyone seems to have an agenda to justify their viewpoint on the male/female subject. We should sit back and enjoy the experience. You can do all the postmortems you want, but I don't know how to put a stamp of approval or disapproval on this week.''

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SOUND BYTES

By Tom Hoffarth
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 23, 2003
Words:746
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