The $10m woman: Golf's golden girl goes professional
The 15-year-old golf prodigy Michelle Wie will today sign professional contracts that will make her the third highest paid sportswoman on the planet. But can her game match up to the marketing men's expectations?
Wednesday 05 October 2005
"Well actually," she will reply, "I just had to go Honolulu's most exclusive hotel to officially become a golf professional, signing up to sponsorships worth $10m (£5.7m)-a-year, which instantly makes me the third best-paid female athlete in the world behind Maria Sharapova ($16.7m - £9.5m) and Serena Williams ($11.6m) as well as the best-paid female golfer, ahead of Annika Sorenstam ($6m). Oh yeah, and my new agent is the same as Marilyn Monroe's."
If that sounds surreal, then that is because this Hawaiian day is certain to be, even in the life of Michelle Wie, an existence that has thus far stretched incredulity way past breaking point. Forget, for a moment, the absurdity of the 8am scheduling of a multi-million-dollar meeting being arranged purely so a teenaged girl can make it to class on time and consider all the other imponderables that go with this announcement.
For a start there are the staggering finances that have dwarfed the six-footer's 300-yard driving distances in a folklore already brimming with superlatives. The $5m (£2.8m)-a-year Nike endorsement, together with a parallel earner from Sony, might not be the end of it, or even the beginning of the end of it, as there is believed to be a major airline winging its many noughts to her overflowing mailbox. When the president of her management company's biggest rivals is quoted as saying "Michelle will be the most recognised female athlete on the planet", you start to realise that this is not a cash-cow women's golf has here so much as a whole cash-herd.
And what of that agency that saw off the likes of Octagon and, more tellingly, those golfing capos of IMG, to persuade Wie's father "B J" that their dotted line had the most to read between? Among the many household names William Morris have had on their books, none will excite Wie as much as Nicole Kidman and John Travolta and her parents as Monroe and Judy Garland. But, believe it, this is no case of Hollywood intoxication.
During the lengthy negotiations that stalled today's coming of age on more than one occasion, Wie Snr has shown himself to be a mean operator, the University of Hawaii professor impressing some mightily ravenous barbarians at his gates with his steeliness as he has sought the right deal to allow Michelle to transgress mere sport. One source said: "BJ knows that his daughter's image will be everything and he was adamant that Nike shouldn't have total control of it." Today's giant tick signifies it is mission accomplished.
Of course, many within golf will stress it signifies no such thing, that the scorecards she signs will have far greater meaning than any contract, and will await next week's professional debut, on her 16th birthday, at the Samsung World Championship in California with wishes that may or may not have the word "best" before them. And while even the Wie cynics - who privately rival the "Wie-Love-Yous" in their number - cannot fail to be thankful for B J bringing forward this grand unveiling to spare the Samsung a media circus, they will be equally sceptical of all his other "feet on the floor" declarations.
Inevitably, education is at the heart of these and despite being able to use as evidence the humbling fact that Michelle can already speak four languages (English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean) it is a pretty seismical leap of faith to believe his assertion that while Tiger Woods only did two years of his studies at Stanford University, this phenomenon will go there and complete the whole four. That would mean graduation six years from now when she will be 22. There is plenty of speculation about what Wie will or will not have achieved by then, but none of this hope or doubt is focused on her finals.
No, there are two, perhaps three questions obsessing the golfing mind. Will Wie be the suffragette this most traditional of sports has been waiting for, to storm the age-old defences of the Augusta National to be the first woman to play in a male major, the first to play full-time on the male tour, to take on and, yes, beat her male rivals? Or will she "merely" be the next Annika, the woman who tried to bridge golf's infinite gender gap, but ultimately failed and had to be content with being a genius of her own fairways? Today, more than any other day, it seems churlish to entertain any other eventuality, although there is a decidedly vocal group that insists that in Paula Creamer, America has a (white) 19-year-old who will be Wie's elder and better throughout her career. They point not only to Creamer's unprecedented rookie year - winning two titles, having eight top tens and missing just the one cut - but also to Wie's own record. Since the low-key US Women Public Links Championship in 2003, where have been her victories? Doesn't her last-round capitulation at June's US Women's Open show that by by-passing junior and amateur golf she has never "learnt to win", that her near misses in surviving the cut in a few male tournaments were nothing more than an underlining of the many bounds, in general, women's golf has made? Even Woods has hinted that he subscribes to this "too early" view, although the hyperbole of his colleagues obviously rang the louder when it was gauged whether she should take the plunge. "She swings the club like no woman I've ever seen," said Ernie Els. "One of the best golf swings I've ever seen," remarked Davis Love. "When you see her hit a golf ball, nothing prepares you for it," sighed Fred Couples. "I've grown up and played with some of the best male golfers in the world and she's better at her age than they were," crooned her coach, Gary Gilchrist.
While Tiger's opinion has been gleaned from his own unique experience, the rest are based on nothing more substantial than giddying potential. It has always been so with Michelle Wie. Up until this day she has not been encumbered by the "what could have beens" but rather propelled by the "what will bes". When she missed the cut by one at the male Sony Open as a 14-year-old the how and Wie was a positive and not a negative.
But now all that is set to change. Not eligible to join the LPGA Tour proper until she is 18, Wie will have to take her chances from the six invites she is allowed, but if this season's evidence is anything to go by that will be quite enough to give the hype some greenback. Notionally she would have collected an average prize of $100,000 in each of her seven tournaments, second only to Annika Sorenstam, who has averaged $140,000. Put that with her repeated forays - invites, naturally - on to the PGA Tour, and interestingly next month on to the Japan men's tour, and it is plain that her school holidays will not be spent in bed. While her friends will be frantically following trends she will be busily setting them.
"I really want to change what everyone thinks about the women's game, make them think a little bit more outside the box," she said earlier this year. "I want to play on the PGA Tour as well as the LPGA Tour, and I really want to become the first woman to play in the Masters at Augusta. My mind-set is that I can beat everyone in the women's game, but I don't really think that I'm the best yet." From this day forth, she will have to be. The money men demand it, the historians demand it, her father demands it. "Yeah-but-no-but" will not work for Michelle Wie.
Wonder of Wie: What she did
* 1989 Born 11 October in Honolulu.
* 1994 Begins playing golf at the age of four.
* 1996 At age seven, plays her first 18-hole round and finishes 14-over par.
* 2000 Becomes the youngest player to qualify in a USGA amateur championship event.
* 2001 Wins the Hawaii State Women's Stroke Play Championship at age 11.
* 2002 At 12, becomes the youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA tournament.
* 2003 March Plays in her first LPGA major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. August: Misses cut in the Canadian Tour's Bay Mills Open Players' Championship - her first professional men's event in the mainland US.
* 2004 January Plays in her first PGA Tour event, the Sony Open.,Misses the cut by one stroke. June As a member of the US team, is the youngest golfer in the history of the Curtis Cup. Wins both singles matches
* 2005 February Earns her highest finish to date in an LPGA event, tied for second, at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay. June Second to Annika Sorenstam at the LPGA Championship.
What they said
'She's probably going to influence the golfing scene as much as Tiger, or more. She's going to attract people that even Tiger didn't attract, young people, both boys and girls, and families.'
'Give her another couple years to get stronger, she can play on the PGA Tour.'
'When you see her hit a golf ball... there's nothing that prepares you for it. It's just the scariest thing you've ever seen.'
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