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Golf: Pro Tour Awaits Wie with Some Curiosity
By Damon Hack

Oct. 6, 2005 — Michelle Wie is often the tallest person on the driving range, and her swing wields a similar authority: club arcs back, club sweeps ball, ball disappears into the horizon. The blur of movement lasts two seconds, but people watch her swing for hours.

"Just turn back the clock nine years," Dottie Pepper, the former LPGA star, said by telephone last week. "It was the same thing with Tiger."

Wie's expected announcement to turn professional, on Wednesday in Honolulu, may be a seminal moment for golf. But it is also a moment that some say has come too soon, even for a teenager who can smack a golf ball 300 yards.

Next week, Wie will turn 16, on Tuesday. Two days later, she will make a highly visible and permanent leap, in her professional debut at the Samsung World Championship, the U.S. women's tour event in Palm Desert, California.

But until she turns 18, Wie cannot become a member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, and she will be limited to six annual sponsor's exemptions into its events - though she can also compete in the U.S. Women's Open and the Women's British Open. She may also continue to accept exemptions into men's events.

When he turned pro at 20, Tiger Woods had a bundle of endorsement cash waiting. So will Wie - by some estimates $10 million. As with Woods, a lot of it will come from Nike, which barely had a foot in golf a decade ago but will now have on its payroll two of the most recognizable athletes in the game.

Companies see the world in the 6-foot, or 1.83-meter, Wie. Born in Honolulu of Korean descent, she is fluent in English and Korean. She plans to continue classes at a private high school in Honolulu.

"Think of the relevant products for someone 15," said Scott Seymour, the senior vice president of Octagon, a marketing company. "It's consumer electronics. It's music. Think about when she turns 16 and first starts to drive. What associations with cars will she have when she gets her first driver's license? It's pretty funny to even talk about it."

Few doubt Wie's marketing potential, but she needs to win inside the ropes, where she will compete against adults trying to earn their daily bread.

The LPGA, like any sports league, is a club. Other members may be envious of Wie's endorsement portfolio, given her relatively thin résumé as an amateur.

"Will there be jealousy of Michelle Wie?" asked Amy Alcott, herself the next big thing when she qualified for the LPGA Tour as an 18-year-old in 1975. "Certainly there will be. There was when I won so quickly, and I didn't have a $10 million or $12 million endorsement contract."

Alcott, a Hall of Famer, said Monday that she remembered winning in her third start and hearing another player saying, "Oh, that's a fluke."

"I was very sensitive," Alcott said in a telephone interview. "Sometimes I'd get my feelings hurt because I felt like an outcast. I was traveling alone. I didn't really have anyone to hang out with. I was a golfing machine. I'd play, I'd eat, I'd go back to a private house."

Wie's ascendancy comes after a summer in which teenagers shone: the amateurs Wie, Brittany Lang and Morgan Pressel and the professional Paula Creamer contended at the U.S. Women's Open before falling short in the final round.

Blending in with adults is not always easy. Wie and Pressel, for example, have had to learn on-course etiquette. Each was reprimanded by a playing partner during a U.S. Women's Open for standing in line with the hole on the green.

Players occasionally dine together at tournaments, but Wie often sits with her mother, Bo, a real estate agent, and father, B.J., a professor of transportation management at the University of Hawaii.

"She seems very quiet, and I've always thought she was a nice girl," Emilee Klein, 31, a three-time LPGA winner, said by telephone. "I don't think anyone really knows her. I don't think I've ever seen her use her locker in the locker room once. She's usually with her family. She's 15. It's not like a 35-year-old is going to become her best friend. The good thing is, she has her parents. She has someone to do things with."

Pepper, who turned pro at 22 in 1988, also has doubts: "I'm not sure that if I had a 15-year-old, I wouldn't be doing it exactly the same way. Nobody knows the best way to do this."

Wie's amateur career has been nontraditional. She competed five times against men in the pros but has had less success than her peers in women's competitions. Pressel, 17, won the 2005 U.S. Women's Amateur and five consecutive American Junior Golf Association invitational tournaments. Creamer, now 19, won 11 AJGA tournaments and has won three events since turning pro last December.

"At this point, she is an untapped talent because there is no track record. No qualifying school, no futures tour," Pepper said. "I echo what a lot of people are saying. She is going to have to win to justify it. There are a lot of questions that need answers."

The above article is from The New York Times.



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    Is Michelle Wie Next Big Thing in Golf?


 

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