Is Paige Spiranac an 'innovator' for women's golf?

To innovate is to do something a new way and to have new ideas about how something can be done.

I looked up this definition when I found out Instagram golf star Paige Spiranac would grace the cover of Golf Digest's Futurists issue as one of their "Innovators and Influencers of 2016." Spiranac rose to fame with her trick shot videos and her provocative photos. She hasn't yet played an LPGA event, and she doesn't have status on any tour.

I spoke to a number of female golfers about it, and they didn't express disdain towards Spiranac for agreeing to do the cover. They understand that she justifiably took advantage of an opportunity afforded to her, as any female golfer would. Spiranac even said she didn't deserve the cover and tweeted to No. 1 golfer Lydia Ko that she hopes she gets the cover she deserves.

Spiranac doesn't apologize for what she does, and nor should she. But the question remains: What is she innovating? Scroll through her Instagram account. Her timeline is made up of trick shots and golf-swing videos, perfectly posed fitness photos and seductive selfies. In fact, she became famous when website Total Frat Move wrote a post called, "The Whole World is About to Fall in Love With Paige Renee, This Smokeshow Golfer From [San Diego State University]." She gained more than 50,000 followers in a matter of hours.

Essentially, her looks became the focus, rather than her golf game and talent. None of that feels new or innovative in a world where image and perception are everything.

The rapid social media fame garnered her an endorsement deal with Callaway Golf and a sponsor's invite into the Ladies European Tour's Omega Dubai Ladies Masters.

Golf Digest said Spiranac is "changing paths to stardom" and has "made golf seem at least slightly interesting to a significant number of people who never used to think about it at all." The magazine also mentions that most of Spiranac's fans are males in the age range of 15 to 30s.

But is her approach innovative? Spiranac isn't the first female golfer to be known for her sex appeal. Jan Stephenson became one of golf's most talked-about women after she was on the cover of Sport Magazine's 1977 "Sex in Sports" edition and later posed for a photo in a bathtub filled with golf balls. She also made a strong run to the top of the LPGA and won a number of championships.

The feminist in me understands that Spiranac has the right to represent herself in any way she chooses. The progressive part of me wonders when golf media will take women more seriously.

Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Rory McIlroy are highly regarded as athletes who have opened the door for future generations of golfers. More importantly, they never had to resort to sexualizing themselves to receive recognition. They simply perfected their craft.

LPGA veteran Juli Inkster, who has 31 professional wins and who last year victoriously captained the U.S. Solheim Cup team, said of Spiranac's cover to the Golf Channel, "It's kind of where our society is right now. I don't agree with it, but it's their magazine and they can do what they want.," Other LPGA players lamented, and Spiranac fans called them "jealous" because none of them landed the cover.

Courtesy of Anya Alvarez

LPGA players aren't jealous. They're frustrated -- and rightfully so. Since its founding in 1950, Golf Digest has had 23 issues with women on the cover. Nine of those, she shared the cover with other male pros, and three had non-professionals on them (including TV personality Holly Sonders, model Kate Upton and social media starlet Paulina Gretzky). Eleven female professional golfers have had their own cover.

But the question remains: What is an innovator in the golf community, specifically for women in golf?

If history is an indicator, the most impactful women are not known for their beauty or social media popularity, but rather for what they stood for and what they accomplished.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was an all-around athlete who put women's golf on the map. In 1945, Zaharias played in three PGA tour events, even amid comments from sportswriters such as Joe Williams, who wrote in the New York World-Telegram, "It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring." Later, she was a founding member of the LPGA in 1950, giving women a pathway to eventually begin earning a living through golf.

My personal hero, Nancy Lopez, changed the landscape for future Latina golfers. There wasn't a girls' team at her high school, so Lopez played with the boys, who won two state titles while she was on the team. She finished tied for second as an amateur in the Women's U.S. Open in 1975, and went on to have a Hall of Fame career, winning 48 times on the LPGA. In 2014, Lopez was voted the most influential Hispanic female athlete of all time by espnW and ESPN Deportes.

If history is an indicator, the most impactful women are not known for their beauty or social media popularity, but rather for what they stood for and what they accomplished.
Anya Alvarez

Golfer Se Ri Pak (South Korea's Tiger Woods), inspired a whole generation of young South Korean female golfers to play. Today, six out of the top 10 female golfers in the world are of Korean descent. Na Yeon Choi, the 2012 U.S. Open Women's Champion, told the Associated Press: "She's a legend in Korea. She's a founder in Korea. That's why we're here. People call us Se Ri's Kids."

These women have ensured that future generations of young girls should have the same opportunities as male golfers and some did so during a time when social media was nonexistent.

Perhaps one cannot survive without the other, and there is certainly room for Spiranac and her more accomplished peers to coexist. The female golf world needs those willing to promote themselves on all levels. However, if golf media only focus on female golfers for their looks, it could affect who fans think are most important. Taking strides towards achieving equal coverage and respect can only help change the dialogue about women's golf, no matter how small the step is.

I recently took my 2-year-old niece to the golf course and watched as she danced around with a club in her hand. She hardly made contact, but it brought me joy that perhaps one day she will take up a sport that has changed mine and so many women's lives. Should she decide to play golf and pursue it as a career, I hope she sees all the different avenues she can take that will leave an enduring impact.

Fame is fleeting and Spiranac's lasting influence on golf remains to be seen. While I hope she qualifies for the LPGA tour and defies the notion that she's "just another pretty face," we need to question what type of innovators we want our future generation of female golfers to aspire to. And, the journey these female golfers take will be greatly influenced by who the media decides to give more recognition to.

Anya Alvarez played golf at the University of Washington, qualified for the LPGA Tour, then realized she was a better writer than golfer. Follow her on twitter @anyagolf and her upcoming women's sports podcast @MajorLeagueW.

Related Content