Michelle Wie: The Big Wiesy

There has never been a golfing prodigy like her. Not yet 16, she has a swing that the experts drool over, can drive a ball 300 yards, and has signed deals with Nike and Sony worth an estimated $10m. Now the Tiger Woods of the women's game has her sights set on beating the men
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In fact, she plays so well that she has just turned professional and collected, at a rough estimate, $10m in endorsements from Nike and Sony. Or was that $10m each? No doubt the exact figure matters to the corporations, to the Wies and to her agents - the William Morris Agency, which built its reputation in Hollywood (Gable, Bogart and Monroe were clients) and is moving into sport (Serena Williams, the boxer Oscar de la Hoya) - but the details are irrelevant: it's the noughts that matter, and there are plenty of them. Wie is the highest earner in women's golf before winning a cent on the golf course.

Early on Wednesday morning in Honolulu last week, Wie announced live on The Golf Channel, with satellite links to Los Angeles and New York, that she was turning professional. The early start was to allow the teenager to go to school without too much disruption. "What class are you going to, Michelle?" "Japanese or drawing, depending on how long this press conference lasts ... ."

Wie, whose mother, Bo, and father, BJ, are from South Korea, is a good student. She says she is determined to graduate from high school and go to college, by choice to Stanford, where Tiger Woods, the world No.1, spent two years before turning professional at the age of 20. She speaks Korean and English, and is learning Japanese and Chinese. She is an American with Asian appeal - a potent commercial mix, as Woods, whose father is American and mother Thai, has proved. Golf is just starting to bubble in China, has long been booming in Japan and is a national obsession in Korea, where women are threatening to dominate the parts of the US LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) Tour that the Swede Annika Sorenstam, the women's world No.1, who is 35 today, cannot reach.

Wie first picked up a club at the age of four and has been doing things her way ever since. Some examples. At the age of 10 she had a round of 64 and became the youngest player to qualify for the US Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. At 11 she won the Hawaii State Women's Stroke Play Championship. At 13 she played in the last group in the last round of the Nabisco Championship (one of the women's majors, a professional event), finishing in a tie for ninth place. Later in the year she won the Women's Amateur Public Links, becoming (of course) the youngest champion. And at 14 she played in the Sony Open, a men's PGA Tour event, and became the youngest player to play in the Curtis Cup, representing the USA against the women's amateurs of Great Britain and Ireland.

You get the picture: Wie is a prodigy like no other. Critics say she has eschewed the traditional route of champions: winning at all ages and stages, beating up their peers before moving up to the next level. This child has dipped in and out of events - amateur, professional, men's, women's - putting together a unique curriculum vitae that is bewildering to some but seems perfectly reasonable to Wie herself. "I want to play on the LPGA and PGA Tours, maybe a mix of both," she has said. "I've learnt not to listen too much to people saying things. You've got to be tough. I think I've got a really special talent, and I want to use it."

She is coached by David Leadbetter, a man whose reputation is unsurpassed, and who knows a golfer when he sees one. "She is unbelievably good," he told Golf International magazine. "It's not just how long and solidly she is hitting the ball, but that she has such a versatile game and so many shots in her armoury. Off the course, she's your typical 15-year-old, but on it she has the mind of a 25-year-old. If she's this good at 15, and keeps improving and getting stronger, which she will, not only can she compete with the men but she can beat a lot of them. The problem is, we are in uncharted territory here. But she has the opportunity to make history."

Wie, who will make her professional debut in the Samsung World Championship (women) in California this week and will play in the Casio World Open (men) in Japan next month, has impressed in women's professional events. She yet to win, however, and although she was leading this year's US Women's Open after three rounds, she ballooned to an 82 in the last. Other talented teens such as Paula Creamer, who has won twice already as a professional, and Morgan Pressel, a former US women's amateur champion who is now professional, show signs of being irritated by all the publicity and hype surrounding the photogenic Hawaiian, but they will just have to learn to live with it: the Wow-Wie factor is here to stay.

There is a novelty value in a slim six-footer who can hit the ball 300 yards - that's a long way for a girl - and who really, really wants to play in the Masters at Augusta, Georgia. That is her ultimate ambition and what sets her apart. The Masters is a men's tournament, one of golf's four major championships, played at one of the game's holy of holies. It was the first tournament Wie watched on television, and she fell in love. "People have asked me if I didn't notice that it was only men in the field, but I didn't really," she says. "It just looked as though it would be great to play there. I want to test my game at the highest level, and that means playing on the PGA Tour. One day I want to win the Masters."

The members of Augusta National, who were all men at the last count and fiercely determined to remain an all-male coterie - especially in the face of campaigns to make them change - undoubtedly smiled indulgently at the fantasies of a teenage girl. Until they saw her play, that is. Then they must have gulped. The girl looks awesome, and that's just on television; in the flesh, Wie has the experts purring. After seeing her swing, Tom Lehman, the former Open champion who will captain the US Ryder Cup team in Ireland next year, dubbed her The Big Wiesy. Wie was delighted because Ernie Els, the South African whose powerful but languid-looking style led to the nickname The Big Easy, is one of her favourite golfers. "I think I swing like him," she said. "It's a swing that lasts a lifetime."

What remains to be seen is whether Wie lasts a golfing lifetime. For the time being, though, she is not so much breaking the rules as writing her own.