It’s asked more often than you’d expect, certainly more often it should be in this day and age. How do men and women compare at the highest level?
The answer, as exhibited this week, is, quite well. The games are different. Anyone who has studied the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour know, without question, that amateurs, both men and women, could learn a lot more from the LPGA and Ladies European Tour pros than they will from watching men on the PGA or European Tours. Just look at the Olympics. Five of the men in the field in Japan averaged over 300 yards off the tee. Three of the longest players in the women’s game – Anne van Dam, Bianca Pagdanganan and Patty Tavatanakit – are all in the Olympic field in Tokyo next week. It’s safe to bet than none of them will average north of 300. And on Sunday of the men’s competition, where Xander Schauffele won gold for the USA, several players hit 8- or 9-irons 190 yards out of thick rough. If anyone in your Saturday foursome does that on a regular basis, you might be in the wrong group.
But adjusting for distance, which is pretty simple, how do men and women compare in similar conditions?
We all thought that question was answered in 2014 when the USGA brought the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open to Pinehurst No. 2 in back-to-back weeks. Martin Kaymer ran away from the field and won the U.S. Open by eight shots, finishing the week 9-under par. The following Sunday, Michelle Wie shot 2-under par to win the U.S. Women’s Open by two over Stacy Lewis. But there were still snarlers, those who gave a dismissive wave and said, “Yeah, but they cut the rough and watered the greens.”
The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio gave another clue. During that fortnight, Justin Rose finished 16-under par, two clear of Henrik Stenson. Six days later, Inbee Park also finished 16-under par, four head of Lydia Ko. The critics there said, “Yeah, but the greens were slow and there was no rough – easier for the women.”
Hopefully, this week shuts them up for good. At Galgorm Castle and Massereene Golf Club, parkland courses with howling wind and thick rough about 30 miles northwest of Belfast, Northern Ireland, the European Tour, the LPGA Tour and the LET sanctioned an event together for the first time in history. And the ISPS Handa World Invitational presented by Modest! Golf Management put an emphatic foot down on those who question how men and women fare together.
European Tour players went out with the women on the same courses at the same time, in the same conditions, playing for the same amount of prize money. And how did everyone do?
We ended up with two first-time winners. Daniel Gavins of the European Tour charged from seven shots back, shooting a final-round 65 to finish 13-under par, good enough for a one-shot victory over David Horsey.
Right behind Gavins, LPGA Tour players Pajaree Anannarukarn and Emma Talley both finished 16-under par. Throughout the week, they found the same rough as the men; they hit in the same fairways, the same bunkers and the same greens, not days or even hours apart. But minutes. Anannarukarn, Talley and third-place finisher Jennifer Kupcho were in the penultimate group of the day, just ahead of Horsey. All three of the women would have beaten the men. In fact, the player who finished fourth in the women’s event, Atthaya Thitikul, tied Gavins at 13-under.
“I think it's great,” Gavins said of the format. “I think it moves a lot quicker, so it kind of speeds play up. I'm all for it. I've played it a few times now. We played an event in Australia (the ISPS Handa Vic Open) where it was the same (format) and that went really well. So, yeah, it's really positive for golf, I think.”
The drama that played out down the stretch is also good for the game. Anannarukarn, who was in contention to win at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational and played with Minjee Lee in the final round of the Amundi Evian Championship, which Lee won, overcame a hiccup on the sixth hole where she inadvertently picked up a ball that was still in play. After a penalty, she made triple-bogey but roared back with two more birdies on the front nine.
“I just kind of told myself that I'd been hitting it well, putting it well. I wouldn't let that shot, just one shot, take me down or anything. Just kind of kept doing my best. I believed that I would keep hitting it well and making more putts.”
That’s exactly what she did, making two more birdies on the back nine and rolling in a crucial 8-footer for par on 18 to force a playoff with Talley. A few minutes later, Anannarukarn rolled in a 9-footer on the same green to break through as a Rolex first-time winner.
“I can't believe I finally pulled it out,” Anannarukarn said. “Just really thankful for everything … Everything that I've learned from my rookie year or even the beginning of this year and especially last week (at Evian), I think everything added up in helping me grow and to be where I am today.”
That experience also helped her send a message throughout the golf world. Women can get the job done. Even standing side by side with some of the best men in the game.