As a TV event, it would have rated barely a fraction of Friday night’s Twenty20 cricket match at the MCG. And its crowd of about 7,000, which yesterday meandered along Kingston Heath’s fairways eating ice-cream and occasionally sitting in the shade of a gumtree, was about 80,000 fewer than that which crammed into cricket’s concrete superdome.
But the women’s Australian Open, televised by the ABC, was a great tonic for sport, especially sport of the fraught and frazzled variety which we have witnessed this summer. It may be the nostalgic rant of a balding old buffer, but the women offered up a picture of sport as it once was – a genteel pastime where fans didn’t boo and opponents didn’t sledge or, Heaven forbid, try their latest line in “mental disintegration”.
After cricket’s Great Unpleasantness, the golf evoked memories of a bygone age when a sledge was a misspelling of Santa’s preferred conveyance, and the only bullying on a sporting field was the quaint method by which hockey players started their matches.
As eventual winner Karrie Webb launched her charge over the closing holes, trying to rein in clubhouse leader, Korean 19-year-old prodigy Ji-Yai Shin, golfers of all nationalities crowded around the clubhouse television and watched the telecast. They could be seen applauding Webb’s good shots as the Australian scorched home with birdies on the 16th and 17th.
There was no booing from the gallery when Shin fired a closing 67 and looked to have defeated the local girl. Nor was there anything but polite applause when the teenager reappeared for the playoff. In fact, as the Australian and Korean set off back to the 18th tee for the second playoff hole, both having missed birdie putts to clinch the title, they walked off the green together, talking and gesticulating with their hands about how their putts had just missed the hole.
It wasn’t just the sportsmanship which shone out, but the quality of play.
In winning her fourth Australian Open, and 45th tournament overall, Webb underscored her credentials as Australia’s finest golfer, man or woman. The holder of seven major championships, including a career Grand Slam, her feats eclipse those of Greg Norman and Peter Thomson, even if she is thought to have come up short in the charisma stakes.
Webb had the misfortune to be born with a slightly glum face. This has given rise to all sorts of preconceptions about her: that’s she’s a sad-sack, dour, humorless and so on. The truth is far from that. As a result, the Queenslander would have received in her career only a smidgin of the sponsorship money and endorsements thrown at, say, Anna Kournikova or any of a dozen other glamourpusses who had a quarter of Webb’s talent and determination.
That’s one of the less appealing aspects of women’s sport in the 21st century – the emphasis on the selling of s-x. In pre-publicity or the Open last week, we even heard several of the women golfers say how they thought their sport needed s-xing up, how it needed to be bold and brassy to win mass appeal.
What arrant nonsense. If they want to dress up like sk-nky tramps, go to the Rio carnival. Women’s golf organisers should be confident in the product they’ve got. They just need to bank on the talent and sportsmanship of these young women, put them on a world-class golf course and let them go for it. It worked a treat at the weekend.