Remember the name: Michelle Wie. Just 14, today she takes on golf's greats

Click to follow
The Independent Online

With the Swiss watch precision that distinguishes the starters of PGA tournaments, at exactly 8.59am Hawaiian time today a young lady with a swing to die for will be summoned onto the first tee at Waialae Country Club near Honolulu - and the golfing universe will hold its breath.

For two years now, Michelle Wie has been the emerging sensation of women's golf. The teenager has smashed golf balls as far as Jack Nicklaus in his prime and won a ranking women's tournament at the age of just 13. Today however, she will be in the spotlight as never before, a prodigy measuring her skills against the finest male players on earth.

In one sense, Wie's appearance at the Sony Open, the second PGA event of 2004, is nothing new. Last May Annika Sorenstam, probably the finest current woman golfer, played in the Colonial tournament on the men's PGA tour.

Though she failed to qualify for the final two rounds, she acquitted herself honourably, under intense pressure. Two months later Suzy Whaley, another leading women's pro, entered the Hartford Open in Connecticut, but again failed to make the cut.

She too found the experience fun - but like Sorenstam was basically outmuscled by the men.

Michelle Wie is different. Not since Tiger Woods, has there been such stuff for America's sporting dream machine. At 14 she possesses a game that golf sages believe could one day consistently challenge the men, hastening the end of the segregation of the sexes in her chosen game - and perhaps others like tennis as well.

Weighing just 150lbs, spread over a willowy six foot frame, she swats drive after drive 300 yards, with an fluid, effortless swing reminiscent of Ernie Els, the world No. 2.

She was dubbed "The Big Wiesy" by the former British Open Champion Tom Lehman, in homage to the affable, laid-back Ernie, the "Big Easy" himself.

Wie's short game, especially her putting, may leave something to be desired. But after a practice round with her at Waialae this week, Els - the defending Sony champion - paid homage to his nickname-sake.

"I don't think I've ever seen a lady golfer swing the club so good," he declared after the two had played the 7,068-yard course together, when the prodigy scored a two-under-par 68. More significantly Els held out the possibility of Wie - and who knows, maybe other women - playing regularly on the men's tour. "It just shows you how the world is changing. Ten years ago, you would never have thought a girl, or a woman, [would] ever have the opportunity or even the talent to play with us."

Like everyone else, Els professed himself struck by the similarities with Woods; their common ability to play golf supremely well at an obscenely early age, an astonishingly level-headed approach to life and celebrity, and their potential as role models far beyond the confines of sport.

Both defy racial stereotyping. Woods is the offspring of a black father and Asian mother, Wie the only child of immigrant parents from South Korea, now solidly ensconced in America's middle class.

Her father (and frequent caddie) BJis a transport professor at the University of Hawaii, while her mother is an estate agent in Honolulu.

Like Tiger, she is almost too good to be true - attractive, personable and an outstanding student at Honolulu's private Punahou School where she is midway through ninth grade.

Wie shot a round of 64 on a full-length course when she was 10, and won the 2003 US Women's Public Links Championship at an age when her peers had Britney Spears not big-time sport on their minds.

But, like Tiger before her, she is determined to complete her university education - preferably at Stanford, where Tiger graduated - before turning professional and playing the women's and perhaps men's tour full-time.

The Wies' financial arrangements, it should be said, tell a slightly different tale. The family is spending $50,000 (£27,000) a year on Michelle's golf education, but puts little aside for college.

Reasonably enough, the family calculates that a sports scholarship will take care of that small matter.

Of course, this careful seven-year blueprint may go awry: multi-million dollar endorsement deals have a way of derailing the best-laid plans.

And maybe there will be no endorsements; golf, like every other sport, is littered with phenoms who fizzled, whose best years are behind them before they are out of their teens.

For all today's precocious assurance, no-one can be sure Wie will fulfil her promise as magnificently as Tiger. Woods still a prodigy today at 28 just as when he was five, 10 or 15.

But right now, she has golf gasping. "You watch her swing and say, 'That's normal.' Then you realise that she's only 13 and that's ... that's unbelievable," says Vijay Singh, the current world no 3. Given Singh's sneering treatment of Annika Sorenstam ("What's she going to prove by playing? It's ridiculous," was his comment before the 2003 Colonial), such gracious words may be more than idle flattery.

Nor is cattiness confined to men convinced that the Almighty would have made women differently had he intended them to play golf on the men's tour. At last year's US Women's Open in Oregon, fresh off her Publinx triumph, Wie drew even larger galleries than Sorenstam.

But she also drew a nasty comment from a women's tour veteran, Danielle Ammaccapane, after an apparently unknowing breach of etiquette by Wie as the pair played together. "You're the worst amateur golfer I've ever played with," Ammaccapane is said to have fumed afterwards in the scorer's cabin. "You'll never make it on the LPGA tour." Whether out of frustration or jealousy, those words may offer a glimpse of the less charitable emotions aroused by Wie and her growing celebrity.

But in Hawaii this week, the girl herself betrays no alarm.

Will she enter territory that Sorenstam could not reach, and make the cut in a men's event?

"Have fun, get experience but don't let expectations get out of hand," advised Sorenstam with the wisdom that comes with maturity.

But the teenager's sights are set higher. "I think I'm pretty much ready, and I don't think I'm going to get that nervous. Playing the way I am right now, I think I have a good chance."

If the gentlemen with the clock announces Wie when round three starts on Saturday, a female Tiger may have arrived seven years ahead of schedule.

PRODIGIES PUT TO THE TEST OF TIME

Olga Korbut
Soviet Union - gymnastics.

Became the darling of the 1972 Olympics in Munich by winning three gold medals aged 17, winning hearts on both sides of the Iron Curtain. She was part of the USSR's gold medal-winning teamin the Montreal Olympics but never repeated her fame of four years earlier.

Diego Maradona
Argentina - football

Precociously talented teen footballer controversially left out of Argentina's 1978 victorious World Cup squad. Sent off at 1982 World Cup but led team to glory in Mexico 1986. Led Napoli to two Italian league titles. Thrown out of the 1994 World Cup after positive drugs test.

Norman Whiteside
Northern Ireland - football

Became the youngest to play in 1982 World Cup finals. In 1985 scored winning goal in FA Cup final for Man Utd against Everton. But injuries and suspensions saw his career frustrated. Retired at 27. Went to university and became sports injuries specialist.

Tracy Austin
United States - tennis

The winner of a record 25 national junior titles, Austin became the youngest player to win the US Open aged 16 in 1979. But her career ended prematurely in 1983, at the age of just 20, due to recurring neck and back injuries.

By Genevieve Roberts

Comments