The main difference between them is that golfer Annika Sorenstam, who walked away over the weekend with the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Havre de Grace, Md., and is halfway to winning the Grand Slam of women's golf, has actually won something in her career.
Danica Patrick, a rookie driver in the Indy Racing League who finished 13th Saturday in something called the Bombardier Learjet 500 in Fort Worth, Texas, is merely a trophy who has never hoisted one.
Harsh? Perhaps, but the media frenzy surrounding Patrick and the attention given Sweden's Sorenstam, appreciative but hardly effusive, have nothing to do with the relative accomplishments of the two women.
All of this says something about the nature of women's sports in this country, about the insatiable shallowness of the marketing monsters. It also says that, unfortunately, when it comes to judging women, society is often less concerned with the proper application of logic than with the proper application of mascara.
While Patrick isn't complaining -- as if she could somehow slow the frenzy or should apologize for being an undeniably attractive 23-year-old -- there is a terrible, ancient lesson being imparted to women here. It is this: You are important, and what you can achieve is limitless, particularly if you look hot in a bathing suit.
The message is supposed to be hopelessly out of date, wiped away by the gender revolutions of the last 40 years or so. But "Danica Mania," which isn't so very different from the hubbub that followed Anna Kournikova during her meager but photogenic tennis career, is an indication that some things will never change.
This just in: Sex sells.
Winning still isn't enough
Sorenstam, it has to be mentioned in the interest of not slighting her in this regard, is a pretty woman. She has always come across as a reserved professional who has never been inclined or interested in trading on her looks. Sorenstam could do the glamour shoots, too, but that is not her nature.
What she does instead is win golf tournaments, often with a performance so steely and dominating -- like the one over the weekend -- that the rest of the field is reduced to playing for second place. Sorenstam has won 62 tournaments, including nine major championships. This season, she has won six of the eight events she played.
All of which is fine, but it hasn't done much to raise the profile of the LPGA Tour, at least in the mind of corporate America. Young Michelle Wie might provide some help, but anyone who doesn't think the LPGA would be doing cartwheels if the head-turning Natalie Gulbis were winning all these tournaments hasn't been paying attention. Or at least hasn't been paying attention to the Indy Racing League.
The IRL is an organization in serious trouble. Its events, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, have become so marginalized that it is the rare sports fan who could pick Dan Wheldon -- the circuit's current superstar -- out of a lineup. Even the Indy 500 had slipped in the television ratings behind whatever NASCAR put up against it. Until this year, that is, when ratings jumped 40 percent.
This year, Patrick was the story, and if she wasn't the story, the shilling TV commentators and the advertising demons were going to "make her the story." At some point of the race broadcast, Patrick was compared to Amelia Earhart, with little doubt that Earhart was the lucky one to be included in the comparison.
Part of this was doubtlessly because Patrick is a decent driver, but a larger part had to do with things like the magazine photo spread in which Patrick was posed caressingly, and nearly indecently, upon a car hood. The symbolism -- that Patrick is great behind the wheel but even better as a hood ornament -- was inescapable.
Patrick led briefly at Indy, becoming the first woman to do so. Getting the lead was accomplished by skipping a late fuel stop. It put her in front, but also meant she had to run with a thin fuel mixture the rest of the race and had no chance to win. She finished fourth, nearly coasting at the end. It was a good performance, although not deserving of the hysteria that followed.
Don't forget your high heels
And, meanwhile, Sorenstam whacks the ball down the fairway, walks after it, whacks it again, wins nearly every tournament, and is generally taken for granted.
Annika and Danica. One is old hat, while the other, so to speak, is new halter top. This is all predictable, of course, but it isn't fair, it doesn't say much for real equality, and it points out that while you may have come a long way, baby, don't forget to bring the high heels with you.