- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Michelle Wie, the princess of golf’s teenage prodigies, confirmed weeks of speculation yesterday by officially joining the game’s play-for-pay ranks.

“The first time I grabbed a golf club I knew I would do it for the rest of my life,” said Wie in a Honolulu press conference that was beamed around the globe. “I’ve been thinking about [turning pro] for a long time, and the last couple of months I just felt really ready. … I realize that everyone’s going to have higher expectations for me now, but I just think everything’s going to be more exciting. The higher stakes make it so much more fun.”

Wie will make her professional debut two days after her 16th birthday next week at the Samsung World Championship, a prestigious 18-player LPGA Tour event in Palm Desert, Calif., and continue her assault on the ladies’ tour later this month at the Japanese Tour’s Casio World Open. But yesterday, the giggling supergirl celebrated some high-stakes success before taking her first pro swing, inking a pair of deals that already place her among the wealthiest women in sports.

The Hawaiian phenom of Korean descent spurned golf goliath International Management Group in favor of the Hollywood-based William Morris Agency. And the firm best known for its representation of film and music stars responded by lining up contracts with Nike and Sony worth an estimated $10 million annually. Only tennis stars Maria Sharapova ($16.7 million) and Serena Williams ($11.8 million) boast more impressive endorsement credentials among female athletes. And Annika Sorenstam, the undisputed queen of the links, falls well short of Wie with an annual portfolio slightly in excess of $6 million.

“What excites us about Michelle is that she has the potential to transcend her sport,” said Nike Golf president Bob Wood, who joined Wie yesterday on the dais at Kahala Mandarin Hotel in Honolulu.

Wie is a cross-marketer’s dream, a modelesque 6-footer whose combination of skill, youth, aesthetics, multicultural heritage and a white-collar make her the hottest sports marketing commodity since Tiger Woods opened with “Hello World” and exploded on the endorsement scene in August 1996. The obvious difference is that Woods was a 20-year-old rising junior at Stanford when he turned pro. Wie is a junior at Punahou High School.

“When I was 16, I was just excited about getting my driving license,” said Woods, commenting on Wie’s announcement as he prepared for this week’s American Express Championship in San Francisco. “I was only thinking about getting into college. But she looks good enough to make a giant step like that.”

Of course, not everyone agrees Wie is ready for such a leap. Given that she has yet to win an LPGA Tour event, Wie’s top-rung endorsement status is certain to engender a certain amount of envy and spite among veterans. And LPGA legends like Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez suggested earlier this year that Wie should put off turning pro and stop her dabbling in the men’s game until she finds greater success on the LPGA Tour.

Tell that to Wie’s father, B.J., a professor of transportation at the University of Hawaii who estimates his daughter’s expenses (travel, lodging, food, equipment, etc.) over the last three years have totaled roughly $120,000. Wie forfeited more than five times that amount ($644,522) in LPGA Tour winnings this season because of her amateur status.

And though she collected no victory laurels in her seven LPGA Tour starts, she proved more than capable of competing at the tour’s highest level. She made all seven cuts, finished in the top 15 in six of those starts and led through 54 holes at the U.S. Women’s Open before an atypical final-round fade (82) led to her worst finish of the season (tied for 23rd).

Her bypassed earnings would rank her 12th on the current LPGA Tour money list, a shocking accomplishment for a player making only seven starts. And in spite of the fact that more than half of her starts came in majors on the most demanding tracks the circuit faced all season, her stroke average (71.0) would rank fourth on tour, behind only Sorenstam (69.33), Christie Kerr (70.65) and Paula Creamer (70.93). In those four women’s majors Wie finished tied for 14th (Kraft Nabisco Championship), runner-up (LPGA Championship), tied for 23rd (U.S. Women’s Open) and tied for third (Women’s British Open).

Her success in repeated forays into the men’s game has been considerably more muted, though not without its share of remarkable moments. As a 14-year-old at the 2004 Sony Open, Wie missed the cut by a single shot and recorded the lowest score by a woman in PGA Tour history with a second-round 68. Then just three months ago, Wie made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, falling three match-play victories short of a place in the field at next year’s Masters.

Though her goal of competing at Augusta National is now a long shot with the Pub Links loophole no longer available, Wie’s decision to remain in school and not challenge the LPGA’s minimum-age requirement (18) means she’ll have plenty of space on her summer schedule for jousting with the men on the PGA and Nationwide Tours. Since Wie won’t be eligible for full-time LPGA membership status, she’ll be able to compete in only six LPGA events (via sponsor’s exemption) plus the Women’s U.S. and British Opens. She’ll likely devote the rest of her season to the PGA Tour, where she’ll be able to accept seven sponsor’s exemptions.

“Don’t think she’ll have trouble getting them, either,” said Clair Peterson, tournament director of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, where Wie missed the cut by only two shots in July. “We saw a 10 percent spike in attendance and ticket sales directly attributable to Michelle’s presence.”

A limited schedule is also sure to reduce the likelihood of Wie suffering from burnout, a syndrome that has longed plagued prodigies in women’s tennis.

“Even without the age restriction, Michelle wouldn’t want to play a full-time schedule until she graduated from high school,” B.J. Wie said. “Michelle knows she needs her education and her space to grow. She’s exceptionally mature.”

Exceptionally mature, exceptionally gifted … and now exceptionally wealthy.

“It’s a change in status, but nothing’s really going to change about me,” said Wie, who kicked off the press conference by donating $500,000 to victims of Hurricane Katrina. “The biggest pro in turning professional is that now I’m in a position to help people and give back. The biggest con … right now I’m so excited that I can’t really see any con to it.”

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