This week, 16-year-old golfing phenom Michelle Wie will play in the 84 Lumber Classic, a regular tournament on the men’s PGA Tour. Wie, a stunningly beautiful six-foot-one Korean American with a swing that rivals Tiger Woods’ for power and sophistication, has entered a number of men’s tournaments. She made the cut at the SK Telecom Open on the Asian Tour, the second woman, after Se Ri Pak, to do so. She has not made the cut in any U.S. men’s event.
Most recently, Wie entered the Omega European Masters tournament, a European men’s event in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. She missed the cut, shooting 15 over par for the first two rounds. Last year, at the John Deere Classic, Wie, who was at the time 10 strokes over the projected cut line, withdrew in the second round with heat exhaustion.
The Ladies’ PGA Tour (LPGA) prohibits full-time membership for golfers under 18. Wie has nonetheless played in a number of LPGA events, where she has often finished in the top five, but has not won.
LPGA SUPERSTAR ANNIKA SORENSTAM made headlines when she entered the 2003 Bank of America Colonial tournament. Sorenstam, like Wie in her men’s tour tries, missed the cut at Colonial. But oh, the hype did fly. And the agreed-upon story line took control fast. No criticism allowed. No questioning. Sorenstam’s appearance was nothing if not totally heroic and special. PGA Tour member Vijay Singh said the obvious: “She doesn’t belong out here. If I’m drawn with her, which I won’t be, I’ll withdraw.” He was drawn and quartered in the press. On Thursday and Friday, TV coverage concentrated on Annika as though she were leading the event.
Nick Price, who somehow escaped press opprobrium (he’s a bit over the hill, unlike Singh, one of the Tour’s leading money winners), called Sorenstam’s appearance “a publicity stunt.” Of course it was. It works. Sorenstam drew the biggest crowds of the first two days and bumped up ticket sales. Wie’s appearances do the same, which means tournament sponsors — who grant the special invites that allow women to play — make more money. In the case of Wie, that can mean a lot more money, because her appearance ties in to more than just ticket sales. Wie already has a number of lucrative endorsement deals. Youth and beauty sell.
A WOMAN CAN QUALIFY FOR some men’s golf events. The U.S. Open is just that, an open tournament. Michelle Wie won medalist honors in the 2006 qualifying tournament’s first round, but was eliminated in the second round. A woman can enter the U.S. Public Links championship. PGA teaching pro Suzy Whaley won the 2003 Connecticut sectional tournament for the PGA (not the PGA Tour; the PGA is the club pros’ organization). That earned her a spot in the Greater Hartford Open that year. She missed the cut.
But Wie mostly disdains such pedestrian routes to…what? It is all best understood as show business. When Wie turned pro, she signed with the William Morris Agency (WMA). William Morris has represented pro athletes. Pete Sampras just left. Serena Williams has used her Morris representation to land TV roles. But WMA is best known shilling talents like Clint Eastwood, Dick Van Dyke, and John Travolta. Its Hollywood roots go way back, to Charlie Chaplin.
You can’t lay all the blame on some cold fish Hollywood agent. Michelle’s parents have maintained a relationship on her behalf with WMA for years, ESPN’s John Hawkins reported. They appear to know exactly what they’re doing.
So far, she has not won anything. She aims, apparently, for a different kind of success, since her chances of winning a men’s tournament are slim indeed. She has come close to winning on the women’s tour, but so far, no trophy.
For now, watching Michelle Wie swing around a golf course in her designer sunglasses and leggy miniskirts seems to be enough. But it won’t always be. She could win a women’s event, or more than one, and start a real golfing career. Or she could be golf’s Anna Kournikova, the most photographed beauty in tennis a while back, who never won anything either.
Me, I wish she’d settle down to pay her dues by playing in sponsor exemption events on the LPGA Tour, the way Tiger Woods earned his place on the PGA Tour by playing late-season tourneys in 1996 and winning twice in a matter of months. Wie has unbelievable abilities. But she needs seasoning to be a real pro. She putts poorly, can’t play well out of bunkers, and gets stymied with unusual lies in the rough — all problems that yield to experience. If she gets that seasoning, she could be another Mickey Wright.
If she doesn’t, the way it’s going now, the whole Michelle Wie phenomenon could turn out to be sport’s version of the 1997 Demi Moore stinker, “G.I. Jane.”