- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Everywhere she goes, people can’t help but notice Michelle Wie.

As a 13-year-old still wearing a retainer, she was warming up on the practice range for a junior pro-am at the Sony Open in Honolulu. When she pulled out her driver, five PGA Tour players on both sides of her stopped to watch her launch tee shots that approached the 300-yard marker.

Last year in Portugal, where Wie received the Laureus World Newcomer of the Year award, she walked into the banquet room filled with celebrities that included Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Placido Domingo.

“Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and watched her go to her table,” said Greg Nared, a Nike business manager who has been tracking Wie the last two years. “That told me a lot.”

The 15-year-old from Hawaii who commands so much attention is on the verge of commanding top money. Wie is about to turn pro, and endorsements estimated to be worth as much as $10 million a year await.

Two sources close to Wie, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is still an amateur, said the announcement will not be made until endorsement deals are signed.

That could be done before the Samsung World Championship, which starts Oct. 13, two days after her 16th birthday. It will be the eighth and final LPGA Tour event Wie plays this year.

“There is nothing to say until everything is completed,” her father, B.J. Wie, said Wednesday.

“It doesn’t have to be associated with a tournament she would play,” the father said. “There is no target date we have to meet.”

When it happens, she will be the highest-paid female golfer in the world.

One deal that is nearing completion is with Nike, which is no surprise. Wie has been playing its irons and golf ball the last two years, and often wears the swoosh on her clothing. A source with knowledge of the negotiations said the deal could be worth anywhere from $4 million to $5 million a year.

She also is working on a deal with an Asian-based electronics company that could be worth about $3 million a year.

Annika Sorenstam makes about $7 million a year in endorsements. No other female golfer is remotely close.

“Did I hear she might make $10 million a year?” David Toms said Wednesday. “I’d like to get half that much. And I’ve won a tournament.”

Early projections were that Wie could command up to $20 million a year in endorsements, and her potential earnings could surpass that. But the family is starting slowly and conservatively, in part because Wie still has two years left before she graduates Punahou School in Honolulu.

Her golf plans took root in January, as Wie was getting ready to play in the Sony Open for the second straight year. Her father spoke that day of her becoming a global golfer, with a base on the LPGA Tour, but also taking her game to Europe and Asia to compete against men and women.

As popular as she is in the United States — record crowds at the John Deere Classic, where she nearly made the cut, and spiked attendance on the LPGA Tour — Wie might be an even bigger draw in Asia.

She was born in Hawaii and has a Korean heritage, and she has spoken Japanese to Shigeki Maruyama while paired with him at a pro-am in the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua. And if the novelty of a 15-year-old girl who hits it a mile is starting to wear off in the United States, that isn’t the case overseas.

“I went to her interview before the Women’s British Open, and I couldn’t believe how full the room was. It was overflowing,” Leadbetter said. “When Annika went in there, it was 25 percent full. The buzz for Michelle was amazing.”

Wie tied for third at the British Open, seven shots out of the lead. She was runner-up in another major, the LPGA Championship, finishing three shots behind Sorenstam.

It was part of a dynamic summer in which she was on the verge of making the cut at the John Deere Classic until a double bogey on the 16th hole. She then reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

While she beat women routinely as a 10- and 11-year-old in Hawaii tournaments, her only substantial victory was the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links as a 13-year-old in 2003.

Steve Lauletta, who ran Miller Brewing’s sports marketing for 10 years and now is president of Omnicom’s Radiate Sports Group, is among those who believe Wie will have to win tournaments to sustain her marketability.

“The potential to dominate is what appeals to a lot of people,” Lauletta said. “One of the qualities she has is being the next big thing. When you’re the next big thing, they want to notice you and see what it is. And she’s that. There’s no doubt about it.”

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