- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

HAVRE de GRACE, Md. — Michelle Wie struggled early at the LPGA Championship, but that did not dull the buzz surrounding the teenager yesterday, three days after she fell short in an attempt to become the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open.

The attempt at history was nothing new for the long-hitting Wie, who has spent much of the past three years eschewing many women’s events, avoiding most amateur contests and attempting to qualify for a men’s PGA tournament — all before she turned professional last fall, just a week before her 16th birthday.

“Ever since I started playing golf, I wanted to play on the PGA Tour,” said Wie, who finished strong to post a 1-under 71 yesterday, seven strokes behind leader Nicole Castrale.

“It’s always been my goal to be able to compete with [men]. And it’s always going to be. And I’m always going to try.”

Indeed, Wie has never been focused on dominating all the women’s events. (She has yet to win a professional tournament, as many critics point out.) But it’s clear her play schedule is carefully orchestrated — largely by her father, B.J. — with input from the William Morris Agency, which signed on late last year after Wie turned pro.

The choice of William Morris over IMG, an agency used by many top athletes (including Tiger Woods), was a surprise. William Morris is best known for representing many Hollywood actors, but industry insiders said the agency nevertheless was a good fit for Wie because she is now its most high-profile client.

Her results in LPGA events suggest she could dominate the tour, if she wanted to. In eight LPGA majors heading into this week, Wie has finished no worse than 23rd, with a third-place finish at this year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship and a runner-up performance at last year’s LPGA Championship.

‘This doesn’t really feel any different,” Wie said of playing against a field of women after having faced off against nothing but men on Monday. “That was fun, and this is really fun, too. I’m still playing on a golf course. … I’m just basically trying to focus on my game.”

But given her ability to finish toward the top in women’s events, some question whether entering men’s events is the best approach for Wie from a marketing perspective.

“They’re clearly trying to market her differently, but I’m not sure anybody’s falling for it,” said Rob Frankel, an independent consultant on branding, who has worked with sports leagues and Fortune 1000 companies. “I think it’s starting to detract from her credibility, actually. When you get right down to it, what’s it doing for her career? The strategy’s been played out so many times, and it doesn’t really prove anything.”

But so far, companies are finding no fault with Wie. She has more than $10 million in endorsements, including a lucrative deal with Nike. Soon, she will have her own line of golf apparel and other major endorsements that likely will vault her worth to more than $40 million, according to some estimates.

Her earnings on the golf course have been more modest. Despite success on the LPGA Tour last year, she was unable to bring in a paycheck because she had not yet turned pro.

Some fellow players said now is the time for Wie to support the LPGA.

‘I wish that she would support the tour a little bit more,” said Pat Hurst, who is tied for second after shooting a 66 yesterday. “It would definitely help us as a tour. But right now she’s doing what she wants to do and you have to respect her for that.”

In fairness, Wie could not play every single LPGA event even if she wanted to. She is too young to join the tour full time, and is limited by the number of sponsors’ exemptions she can get in one year.

In Wie’s first pro tournament this year in Sacramento, Calif., she would have won $53,000 but was disqualified for signing the wrong scorecard. She did win more than $100,000 for her Kraft Nabisco performance, and another $73,000 for a third-place finish at the Fields Open in Hawaii.

But her big money from golf has come from appearance fees elsewhere. Last month, she pulled in $700,000 to appear at the SK Telecom Open in South Korea, a men’s event with just $600,000 in total prize money. She went on to become the first woman ever to make the cut at an Asian Tour event.

“She’s got it made right now,” said Morgan Pressel, who is only a year older than Wie but joined the LPGA Tour after dominating the amateur ranks. “She can go to Japan and play for … just as much money as some of our purses, so why would she want to come play LPGA events? I mean, she’s making lots of money. I wish she would play more, obviously, on the LPGA Tour, but she’s got it made.”

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