Michelle why? The schoolgirl golfer learning tough lessons
A year after turning pro the precociously gifted wannabe may have amassed a fortune in endorsements, but the golden girl with tall ambitions has found it hard to compete in a man's world
Thursday 12 October 2006
Not a bad first year at work for a teenaged job-starter. Earnings: £6m. Days at the office: 42. Not bad when you have carried on attending school and maintained your A-grade average. Not bad at all when you are a female and your chosen profession happens to be in the unashamed last bastion of male privilege.
So why will she tee it up at the Samsung Women's World Championship in California today - the day after she turned 17 - with a giant question mark above her head? Why will most experts mutter that she has yet to prove herself and will not be doing so until she gives up on her quest for history? Why will an alarming number of so-called sports fans be willing her to fail (again)? Because she is Michelle Wie, that is why. And her story continues to be the most intriguing, not to mention most baffling, in all of modern sport.
It all began, of course, long before the Hawaiian skyscraper - 6ft 1in in her ballet shoes - struck her first "paid" drive at Bighorn Golf Club a year ago this week thus becoming the highest-earning female athlete in the world with her $10m (£5.4m) endorsements. There was already a legend forged, an entire Michelle folklore written about the wunderkind with a wondrous future. But then it began and so did the wondering. From the off, the emphasis was more on look what she hasnot done than look what shehas.
What Wie failed to do at the 2005 World Championship was take a penalty drop correctly (an unwitting error picked up by a Sports Illustrated journalist, who bizarrely kept his observation to himself until Wie could not make amends for it). Ostensibly, the disqualification lost Wie fifth place and roughly £35,000. But, more than that, it lost her face. She has never quite recovered it in the 12 months since.
For despite amassing more than $700,000 (£380,000) in the eight female events she has played in and despite establishing herself in the women's top 10, Wie's first year is being judged, in many quarters, as more failure than success. That is in small part down to her not yet winning a female tournament and massively down to her performances in male events. It seems that in aiming for the sky, Wie has threatened to bring it all down on top of her.
Since joining the millionaire club, Wie has played alongside the men in six "proper" tournaments and has been typecast accordingly. Her recent woeful showings have become staple jokes on US current affair shows and suddenly her name has become synonymous with the futile dream instead of the American dream. Her most vicious critics scream that she is a sponsors' creation and that her repeated participation on the PGA Tour is the Frankenstein manifestation of it that should be stopped immediately. Even those sympathetic to her have started to concede that maybe she should learn to win against her own gender first.
It was two terrible weeks last month that brought this melting pot to the boil and the viscous aftermath misted over what Wie had accomplished against the fairway sex already that year. Not five months before, Wie had become the first female since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to make the cut in a fully fledged male event - albeit the SK Telecom Open on the unheralded Asian Tour - and then, a few weeks later, had come within five holes of qualifying for the US Open.
But it was the image of the John Deere Classic in July which really stuck, when Wie withdrew midway through the second round with heat exhaustion and was carted off on a stretcher. In those photos that flashed around the globe she looked like exactly what she is - a schoolgirl - and it was hard not to feel she was out of her depth. A month ago she was positively drowned by the negativity as she finished 156th out of the 156 competing in the European Masters in Switzerland - her first European Tour invite - and seven days later filled the same isolated position at the Lumber Classic in Pennsylvania. Cue outrage, cue malice, cue open season.
"I just looked up 'the novelty is wearing thin' in the dictionary and saw a picture of Michelle Wie missing another cut in a men's tournament," said Greg Cote ofThe Miami Herald, summing up the general guffawing in golfland. At least this critique was penned with a degree of humour; others were not so kind. The most hurtful concerned Wie's parents, whom some accused of cashing in on their daughter's growing humiliation.
Unsubstantiated rumours started circulating about how Team Wie had signed contracts with Nike and Sony (Wie's main sponsors) agreeing she would play in at least four PGA Tour events a season and a few eagle-eyed scribes focused on the expensive watch her father, B J, was wearing at Crans-sur-Sierre. The European Masters is sponsored by Omega, the watch company which has a big tie-in with Wie and invited her to play against Sergio Garcia and Co.
For his part, B J only raised the eyebrows further by declaring that he could not stop her from mixing it with the big boys even if he wanted to "as it's Michelle's choice", which did not quite tally with his steely-eyed observations after the first round of the John Deere two months before. Then he told Golf World: "Some of the criticisms of Michelle's playing on the PGA Tour are very logically thought out. However, they do not fully understand the capitalistic market mechanism. Did you see the large galleries following Michelle yesterday despite her 77?"
So what is Wie: groundbreaking athlete or money-making marketing device? The answer is certainly somewhere in between although George O'Grady, the European Tour chief executive, believes there is enough danger of the latter being perceived alone that what he used to call " a gimmick", but then politically changed into "an experiment", will not be reprised in Europe any time soon. Like the majority in the game, O'Grady thinks Wie should retreat to her own backyard until she is good enough, a feeling put most starkly by the Ryder Cup player Scott Verplank.
"If I was her adviser, I'd tell her to go kick all the ladies' tails around for four years and then if she wants to try again when she's 20 or 21, and grown up more and may be a better player, come on back," said Verplank. "She's not scaring anybody at the moment around here."
But neither has Wie been scared off and, for whatever reason, she is determined to carry on with what she calls "my mission". "This is a long-term goal for me," she said at Bighorn on Tuesday. "I'm willing to work at it. It's a lot of fun for me, so definitely, hopefully, I'm going to play a lot of men's events next year. I am actually getting better at competing with the guys."
The stats book does not agree. In 2004, as a 14-year-old she averaged 70 shots per round on the PGA Tour. In 2005 she averaged 72.5. In 2006 she averaged 76.4. It may be damned lies but she has actually got worse in male company, while her rate of improvement in female company has been just as marked. How can this be? As ever, theories abound on the driving range, where the widest-held belief is the obvious one that Wie is simply trying too hard.
"Wie has lost some of that wonderful natural rhythm she has because she is trying to hit the ball too hard in order to keep up with the men," said one top-level coach, who proved the influence the Wies now command by only agreeing to be quoted anonymously. "She's no longer the "Big Wiesy". She swings too hard now at everything, even the pitch shots. She's definitely way better than what we saw in Switzerland and at the Lumber."
Wie is certain of it. Yesterday, as she played in the Pro-Am for the exclusive event that features the top 20 women players, she was all smiles, commenting that "everything's just fine" and "my game's exactly where I want it to be". As it was her birthday, she could be forgiven her optimism. But then Wie forever looks on the bright side and thinks big as David Feherty, the great wag himself, once alluded. "Perhaps it's just being a teenager," said the Ulsterman. "But it reminds me of the story of the child who is always infuriatingly optimistic and whose doctor conducts an experiment. He locks the kid in a room full of horse manure and when he comes back an hour later the boy is knee-deep in the crap, throwing it all over the place. 'What you doing?' screams the Doc. 'Well, with all the horse manure around,' says the kid, 'there must be a pony in here somewhere'."
Wie, the World Championship and, yes, all of golf knows there is a thoroughbred trying to dig her way out of all the dirt thrown at her. Who knows, this week could just be the time the maiden loses her tag. One of them, anyway.
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THREE GOLD STARS
Her value to sponsors
Headlines not results are the measures on the sponsors' judging stick and by this gauge Wie has been worth every nickel of the reported $10m (£5.4m) investment in her first year. After a recent survey in America, Wie was named the most high-profile woman sports star in the world for generating almost twice as many column inches in the top newspapers as her nearest rival. Sponsorship nirvana.
Making cross-gender history
No, not by becoming the first female to finish last in back-to-back men's events, but by becoming the first to win through to the final qualifying stages of the US Open and the first to make a cut in a fully fledged male tour event in over 60 years. While her success in making the weekend of the SK Telecom Open in May was largely derided, her beating of more than 40 men in her local US Open qualifier was not so easily scorned. And until the final five holes of the 36-hole qualifier she looked likely to make it to Winged Foot.
Her start as an LPGA professional
In just seven events on the LPGA Tour this season, Wie has amassed over $700,000 (£380,000). If Wie was a bona fide member of the LPGA Tour (she won't be until she turns 18) she would rank 14th on the money list, although her dollars-to-tournament ratio would rival that of Lorena Ochoa, the order of merit leader who has won $2,124,122 (£1,100,000) from 22 events, and the world No 1, Annika Sorenstam ($1,769,408 (£950,000) from 17). The leading rookie, Seon Hwa Lee, has won approximately $150,000 more than Wie, from 16 more events.
THREE COULD-DO BETTERS
Making the most of invites
Last in her first European Tour outing - the European Masters in Switzerland last month - last the very next week in her sixth PGA Tour outing - the Lumber Classic: Wie's campaign "to compete" with the men has hit the buffers. In fact, it has barely been on track in 12 months during which she has played seven male events and made just one cut. Elsewhere, there has been nothing but tears; most publicly at the John Deere Classic, where she was taken off the course on a stretcher after quitting her second round due to heat exhaustion.
Knowing the rules
If the disqualification at her debut pro event - the World Championship - was unfortunate, then the two-shot penalty at the Women's British Open was unforgivable. At least Wie knew the rule at Bighorn - when a meticulous journalist found she had taken an illegal penalty drop by pacing out the yardage to the pin - which was more than could be boasted at Lytham. There Wie flicked a piece of loose heather in a bunker on her backswing but thinking that was allowed, carried on regardless. Only coming off the 18th was she advised of her transgression. And of her punishment. A harsh but much-needed lesson.
Getting on with colleagues and employees
The popular Se Ri Pak, Korea's other golfing heroine, went on record with the much-uttered complaint that Wie does not give her fellow female pros the time of day and the starlet's handling of her first professional caddie raised much consternation. First she "nicked" Greg Johnston from the ever-popular Juli Inkster - who was furious that Wie never offered as much as a "sorry" - and then just six months later sacked the bagman without a reason, or even a phone call. That's just not golf.
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