Michelle Wie, after Tiger Woods the two most sought-after words in golf, will become the first female to appear in a full European Tour event when she tees it up in the European Masters in September. The news was announced with excitement yesterday, although behind the "ker-ching" of the tills there was a discernible gnashing of teeth.
For while Wie was starting out on her latest bid for history yesterday, by appearing in pre-qualifying for next month's men's US Open, the inevitable criticisms of her inclusion in the prestigious European Masters were already emerging.
Jean Van de Velde, the French maverick, expressed his readiness to "play in a skirt if the women will now let me compete in their competitions", while other players muttered about Wie being invited at the expense of male professionals who could really do with the chance.
Despite the 16-year-old American's popularity and the undoubted interest her entry will create, there is a palpable feeling that the Tour have backtracked in their "women-against-men" policy. There is a precedent as Laura Davies competed in a co-sanctioned European Tour event in New Zealand in 2004, but that experiment was deemed "a failure" when the Englishwoman finished second from last.
That appeared to be the end of the matter as last October George O'Grady, the chief executive, said that the Tour "didn't see much point" in women playing in their tournaments, labelled it "a gimmick" and declared that there would "need to be a good reason" for them to approve such a move. He then intimated that the only justifiable argument he could think of would be a famous female playing in her local tournament. Obviously another "good reason" has been pointed out to O'Grady and it seems Omega provided it.
The Swiss watch manufacturer, which signed Wie in a multi-million-pound endorsement deal six weeks ago, is a valued sponsor of the European Tour and O'Grady admitted yesterday that Omega, together with the tournament organisers, made a formal request for Wie to play. Questions are bound to be asked why this was approved.
Apparently the subject was discussed at a Tournament Players Committee meeting last week, and the controversy is set to run until Wie reaches the first tee on 7 September. Ever since Annika Sorenstam became the first female to play in a male event in more than 50 years, on the US Tour three years ago, the argument about this trend has raged. Among the most vocal opponents have been Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen while Europeans such as Colin Montgomerie and Ian Poulter have also voiced their unease.
Yesterday, Van de Velde was the only one brave enough to go on the record. "I have no objection to Michelle Wie or any other women playing in our tournaments so long as we are now allowed to play in theirs," he said. "Yes, I am ready to play in a skirt."
Sardonic stuff, although the official line was one of simple delight as Wie, the sponsors and the Tour cranked up the PR. Speaking from the Hawaii qualifier, Wie said: "I am honoured," and in his statement O'Grady sounded even more so. Meanwhile the tournament's president, Gaston Barras, promised that Wie would "raise the profile of the European Masters" and this, at least, could not be denied.
Since Wie turned professional last October, her fame has spiralled and her success in Korea last month, in becoming the first women since 1945 to make a cut in a fully fledged professional male tournament, has only added more authenticity to the phenomenon and more value to her commodity. Yesterday, the European Tour eventually bowed to the temptation. And now the fun really starts.Reuse content