You have probably never heard of her even though she’s the best golfer in the world, male or female; yet we never hear about her exploits. In fact, as we are told,
On 2 February 2015, [Lydia] became the youngest player of either gender to ever be ranked No. 1 in professional golf by both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Rolex World Golf Ranking at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, eclipsing Tiger Woods who was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days when he became men’s world number one in 1997 and Jiyai Shin who was 22 years and 5 days when she became women’s world number one in 2010.
And yet, again, despite the fact that she has won more times than Tiger Woods did at her age you have probably never heard of her. She seldom gets attention on the large stage of ESPN while every time Tiger Woods stubs his toe it gets headlines. When Charlie Rymer — a former PGA golfer and now a commentator on the Golf Channel — was asked why Lydia wasn’t better known, he hemmed and hawed (as is his habit) and totally failed to answer the question — which is simple: she is a woman. Moreover, she is not American. No matter how gifted she is, and she is regarded by those in the know as the most gifted golfer currently playing the game, she will be widely ignored, not only for the reasons given, but also because she isn’t brash enough. She doesn’t howl like a wolf and pump her fist when she sinks a putt — as Tiger used to do — or pout when she has a bad day. She lifts her chin and walks to the next tee box and prepares to play. She is a delight, but she doesn’t “sell” to an American audience that wants its athletes to emote loudly and graphically and, if possible, show their vulnerability.
There are a number of factors involved in what might be called the “Ko phenomenon.” I have mentioned the obvious, but there is also the distinct possibility that race plays a part. After all, Ko is a New Zealander of Korean extraction who doesn’t look like the girl next door. And she plays a woman’s game. Even the Golf Channel, which is devoted solely to golf, broadcasts very few hours of women’s golf in a day. It is usually after the main PGA event of the day and is usually cut off for (wait for it) REPLAYS of the men’s event during the prime viewing hours. The major networks seldom bother with any but the major events, which are few in number. As I said, ESPN seldom even mentions her name and even Sports Illustrated tends to bury her achievements deep in its pages, usually as an afterthought — if they bother to mention her at all.
As one who coached both men’s and women’s tennis for years, I can attest to the bias that exists in this country against women’s sports. In some cases, such as basketball for example, there is a marked difference in ability between the men who play for pay and the women who imitate them as much as possible both in apparel and type of play. Perhaps because of the different skill levels the audience for women’s basketball is meager at best and the women’s professional league struggles to keep its financial head above water. But in tennis and golf, the athletic gap is not that great. Though they don’t hit the ball as hard or as far, women play an exciting brand of both tennis and golf and while women’s tennis at the highest levels gets some semblance of the respect it deserves — and even gets equal pay in the main events — women’s golf, where the players are exciting to watch and every bit as good as the men, is largely ignored. And, like the women’s soccer team, their remuneration is something of a joke when compared with that of the men.
When one seeks for causes of this phenomenon one comes up with the types of reasons I have given above. But, in the end, the habit of the media to ignore athletes like Lydia Ko may be the reason so few have heard of her. That is to say, the entertainment industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market young women who play a game at the highest level but who seem happy and well-adjusted (they smile, can you imagine?) and not given to histrionics. The entertainment industry wants sensational, viewer-grabbing moments, preferably with tears and perhaps even violence, if possible. Golf generally fails, though the men have found a way to make it more interesting by looking more intense (they seldom smile) and waiving their fists at every opportunity. Not the women. And that seems to be the heart of the problem.