The men’s Open may be more popular, but women’s event is more accessible

Jun. 19, 2014 @ 08:44 PM

On Thursday morning, just like I did on Thursday of last week, I made the right turn off Plank Road in the southwestern corner of Lee County to drive to Pinehurst and watch a few holes of the U.S. Open. Cresting a hill a moment later, I was curious if I’d see what I saw one week ago on the opening day of the men’s championship: traffic backed up nearly all the way, probably four or five miles worth, from Carthage.

That long processional line for the men’s championship moved slowly, but steadily, toward Pinehurst, last week. If you were patient, it wasn’t a big deal.

Yesterday, though, there was no line.

No lines anywhere, in fact.

You’d think from the lack of people the women’s Open wasn’t a big deal.

But it is, of course. On the opening round of an historic event, the first back-to-back Open championships in USGA history, and in the wake of another successful men’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2, getting to, and around, Donald Ross’ masterpiece for our women’s national championship was easy.

Too easy.

The greatest players in the women’s game teed off to polite, knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowds, but galleries that were decidedly sparse. Grandstands sat nearly empty most of the morning. Following groups, even those with two or three marquee players, was a piece of cake. Spectators weren’t six-deep around greens. Finding a space at the ropes surrounding tee boxes was no problem. Concession stands had few, if any, customers. Staking out a position in advance of a favorite player wasn’t necessary – you could simply follow along with them, seeing every swing, every shot, every putt.

It was a shame.

Only it wasn’t. For golf fans who have attended both men’s and women’s events, the fact that the women’s tournaments are much more accessible is a given. Fewer spectators means better sightlines – and that’s just the start. Many, if not most, major sports events are better seen on television because you can actually see the action. At Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday, you could really see AND experience it.

Maybe it was the fact that it was the first round. Maybe it was because the weather forecast was calling for intense heat. Or maybe it was simply the fatigue factor: golf fans poured into Pinehurst No. 2 to watch the men in droves last week, many of them making their way to the course from two large parking areas strewn with cars bearing North Carolina license plates. After two, or four, or even six days in the steamy Sandhills last week, how many of them were up for a second dose, a second week?

The crowds for the women’s Open will certainly pick up by this weekend, and interest as well. But not even the United States Golf Association, the game’s governing body in this country and the organization conducting these two championships, can spin the fact that the women’s Open doesn’t generate nearly the interest the men’s Open does.

To which anyone who’s been to a few women’s Opens would say: irrational.

I posed this idea to my high school and college chum Darrell Spain. Darrell, an attorney back in his hometown of Waterville, Kan., and his father Lyle attended 10 women’s U.S. Opens together starting in the 1990s, including two at Pine Needles in Southern Pines. They’ve traipsed all over the country to see the women play, and there’s a reason.

“I’ve been to numerous PGA, Senior PGA, and LPGA Events, and if I had to express a preference, I’d much rather attend and watch a women’s tournament,” he told me Thursday. “I’ve been to probably a dozen or more LPGA events or women’s Opens and have definitely enjoyed my experiences there more than at any of the men’s tournaments that I’ve been to.”

Darrell mentioned the size of the galleries, of course, and the ease of following a particular player over the course of several holes.

“If you’re doing that at a men’s tournament, then most of the time you will find yourself at least five or six rows back, maybe more, from the action,” he said. “If you’re 6-foot-5, this is not a problem. Unfortunately, I am not, so it was always an issue for me.”

But not at a women’s event. That made me think about Michelle Wie, a good enough women’s player to have played events on the men’s PGA Tour, who famously said years ago she’d rather watch the men play than the women because she liked the men’s game better. But even at 6-foot-1, Wie probably had trouble seeing play as part of the gallery last Sunday at the men’s Open as a spectator. Just too many people, too much mass, too much gridlock.

She’s at the women’s event this week as a player, and because of the smaller galleries she’s easy to see, regardless of her height.

That’s why you should check out the women’s U.S. Open, even if you had your fill of golf last week. You get much closer to the game than you do with the men.

And it’s not just that the USGA actually moved the fairway ropes closer to the action. Few of us men who play the game approach the physical feats of the men on the PGA Tour, but many of us who play can hit a 7-iron as far as Stacy Lewis or Karrie Webb. And if you’re looking for a player’s game to mimic, the smooth-swinging women are a better pattern.

Darrell agreed.

“If you just want to watch and learn what a sound golf game looks like, I’d recommend you observe the ladies play,” he said. “The men almost seem supernatural in their abilities – crushing 320-yard drives, cranking their irons unfathomable distances. As a golfer, and I do use that term loosely, I guess I can relate more to what the women do on the course. Their swings are textbook smooth and natural. If you are trying to emulate the swings you see, then I think you are better off watching an LPGA pro. It’s like, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ instead of ‘Jeesh, I might as well sell my clubs.’”

Without a dominant player like Tiger Woods or even the retired Annika Sorenstam, the stature of the women’s game pales in comparison to the men’s. More than 250,000 people went through the gates at last week’s men’s Open, the fifth-highest attendance in U.S. Open history. Even if the then record-setting galleries from the women’s Opens that Pine Needles hosted in 1996, 2001 and 2007 are matched, numbers on the course this week will be far fewer.

There’s more, of course. The purse for the men’s Open was $9 million; even though this year’s women’s purse is up three-quarters of million dollars over last year’s, it’s still just $4 million. There will be just 14 hours of live television coverage of the women’s event, compared to 35 hours for the men.

But for those who make the effort to check out the women’s Open? Well worth it.

And Darrell had one more thought.

“I’d also say that the women and their caddies are much more congenial and apt to interact with the galleries, especially during the practice rounds or even on or around the practice tees and putting greens,” he said. “Women’s events seem like a much more fan-friendly experience. The ladies particularly enjoy the children, and kids appear to have an especially wonderful time. It is actually kind of refreshing to see professional athletes who truly appreciate their fan support. I cannot tell you how many times I have personally heard one of the LPGA players say ‘Thank You’ to the staff, volunteers, and galleries.”

So if you went last week, check out the women this week. And if you haven’t been at all, give it a try – the ladies will appreciate it.