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When Tiger Woods turned professional at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open, his father described him as a golfing messiah who would change the face of the game.

The charismatic and spectacularly talented Woods lived up to the hype, winning championships and money faster than anyone ever had, enticing corporate sponsors and TV networks to spend hundreds of millions with the PGA Tour and becoming the sport's first true global icon.

But if Woods was golf's messiah, how do we describe a 15-year-old girl whose dreams exceed even Tiger's grasp?

Michelle Wie wants to break barriers, not just records. The 6-foot Hawaiian ubertalent wants to someday compete on the PGA Tour as a full-fledged, card-carrying member.

And get this: One of her career goals is to play in the Masters, a pronouncement that caused the ground to tremble in Augusta, Ga.

Is the sport ready for a woman competing against men in more than just an occasional cameo? Is society ready? And what would it mean to both the PGA and LPGA tours in terms of corporate support, media exposure and marketing?

"It's hard for me to comprehend where Michelle is coming from," said Madison native Sherri Steinhauer, who ranks 19th on the LPGA Tour career money list with $4.35 million. "She wants to play in the Masters. I never would have thought of that as a youngster growing up.

"My goal was to play on the LPGA Tour. Her goals are set to the limit."

Wie, a 10th-grader at the Punahou School in Honolulu, has accepted a sponsor's exemption to play in the Sony Open in Hawaii, the first full-field event of the 2005 PGA Tour season. The tournament is scheduled for Jan. 10-16 at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu.

Last year, Wie missed the 36-hole cut by one stroke with an even-par 140 total and her second-round 68 was the lowest score ever by a female competing exclusively against men. Among the 47 players she beat: Zach Johnson, Scott Hoch, Adam Scott and Jeff Sluman.

"I had such a great experience last year," she said. "Hopefully, I'll do a lot better. My goal is to be in the top 20."

Wie's ambition has inspired other young women. Isabelle Beisiegel, a 25-year-old Canadian, became the first female to enter the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament this year.

"I think it's a very empowering message for young girls to see someone like Michelle Wie, who doesn't see any boundaries in her athletic future," said LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw. "You can compare and contrast Sherri Steinhauer's feelings growing up with Michelle's now. There's a vast difference in those philosophies."

Even a crusty old PGA Tour veteran such as Peter Jacobsen thinks it's just a matter of time before a woman competes full-time against the men.

"Maybe a couple women are going to go to the tour school and get their cards and play on the men's tour," Jacobsen said. "I would say it will happen in three to five years. I think Michelle Wie's got a great shot.

"It's always tough at the very start, breaking that barrier. . . . I think it's just the stigma of being kind of a fish out of water. But I think it could happen and I think Michelle's the one that could do it."

Though no woman golfer has ever competed regularly against men, several have ventured across the gender line. Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed in PGA Tour events in the 1940s. Laura Davies has played in a men's European Tour event and Se Ri Pak made the 36-hole cut in an Asian Tour event. Club professional Suzy Whaley had her 15 minutes of fame at the Greater Hartford Open.

And Annika Sorenstam's appearance in the Bank of America Colonial was one of the biggest sports stories of 2003.

Sorenstam, the Swedish superstar who has won 56 tournaments on the LPGA Tour, missed the cut by four shots. Colonial Country Club, at 7,080 yards among the shorter venues on the PGA Tour, nevertheless exposed her weaknesses relative to the men.

She had trouble with the course's length, couldn't attack the flagsticks with longer clubs from the fairways and had a hard time adjusting to greens that were firmer and faster than those she faced regularly on the women's tour.

"I have never really felt like I have anything to prove when I play against men," Sorenstam said. "My goal every year is to become a better player and, for me, it really helps to play with the men because I have a lot of respect for how they play.

"But I told myself I am not going to play in another official PGA Tour event and I think I am going to stick with that."

Since 2000, Sorenstam has been perhaps the most dominant athlete in any sport, winning 38 of 106 starts (35.6%) on the LPGA Tour. If she couldn't succeed against the men, how could Wie or anyone else?

"Annika is one of the best ladies who has ever played the game," said noted swing teacher Rick Smith, whose students include Phil Mickelson and Jerry Kelly. "The question will be, can somebody be 30 yards longer than Annika and be just as dominant as she is?"

The vast majority of women lack the strength to even consider playing on the PGA Tour, where the courses are 700 to 900 yards longer than the typical LPGA venue and the rough is twice as deep.

"The course is so much longer that if you miss a fairway, you're really behind the 8-ball," Steinhauer said. "You have to have incredible strength to hit it out of the rough. Women would have to play smarter golf. They wouldn't have as many birdie opportunities."

A long-hitting PGA Tour player such as Woods or Mickelson swings a driver at speeds in excess of 120 mph. Even shorter hitters generate swing speeds well over 100 mph, while most women top out in the 90s.

The driving distance statistic on the respective tours reflects that difference. In 2004, 160 men averaged 280 yards or more off the tee, while Sophie Gustafson led the women with a 270.2 average.

The difference in speed carries over to other parts of the game. Because women swing the club slower than men, they have a harder time advancing the ball out of thick rough and spinning it with longer iron shots. Without backspin, the ball bounces unpredictably on firm greens, making it difficult to get close to flagsticks tucked behind bunkers.

"Spinning the ball requires more than just technique," Kelly said. "There is a lot of strength involved. Women will have to put in a workout regimen more for strength than for stretching and stamina. It's got to be rigorous enough to change their body. I don't know how many women will really want to do it."

Maxann Shwartz, named to Golf for Women magazine's 2004 list of the top 50 golf instructors in the U.S., said most LPGA Tour players were surprisingly weak in the upper body.

"These girls look very strong, but most of them can only bench-press 45 pounds," she said. "I've worked with a lot of women pros and it amazes me how weak they are. Physiologically, we're so different. Have you ever watched women's pro basketball? It's fun, but it's a different game."

Strength isn't an issue when it comes to putting, but the statistics indicate women also are not as good as men on the greens. Forty-eight players averaged 1.76 or fewer putts per green in regulation on the PGA Tour in 2004, compared with six women on the LPGA Tour.

One reason could be the way women think, according to Annette Thompson, another Top 50 teacher.

"The man's brain is wired differently," she said. "The man's brain sees one answer and the woman's brain sees multiple answers. It's not conscious. It's just the way the mind views problem- solving."

But Wie doesn't fit any mold. She was encouraged from an early age by her parents and her instructors at the David Leadbetter Academy to think outside the box. She plays an aggressive, fearless game and has worked on the short-game shots she would need on the PGA Tour -- shots most women don't practice.

Most important, she generates tremendous distance off the tee with her big swing arc. The men's game is all about power, and Wie has it. Even as a 13-year-old, she routinely hit her drives 265 yards in the air.

Wie gets her distance more from technique than strength, but she recently started lifting weights. Already, she is as long as the longest women pros.

"When Michelle hits it, all the men turn around and watch," said Betsy Cullen, a Top 50 instructor at Pine Forest Country Club in Houston. "It's very impressive."

PGA Tour pros think nothing of hitting 300-yard drives, but they're not sure how to react when they see a teenage girl do it. Ernie Els and Fred Couples shook their heads in amazement the first time they watched Wie hit balls. Kelly asked for her autograph.

"I saw her hit some shots (at the Sony Open) and she's unbelievable," said Tour veteran J.P. Hayes. "It was amazing she could shoot those scores at 14. I don't care if it's a boy or a girl. Tiger played out here when he was a teenager and he didn't even come close to making a cut."

If Wie qualified to play on the PGA Tour, she undoubtedly would inspire other women to follow in her footsteps. Perhaps someone like Beiseigel would break through, or another young star such as LPGA Qualifying Tournament winner Paula Creamer or 19-year-old Brittany Lincicome would give it a try.

"I played with Paula in Futures Tour qualifying," said Top 50 teacher Dede Cusimano. "She shot the easiest 65 I ever witnessed in my life. She had eight birdies. It was like she just blinked her eyes and there it was."

But is the PGA Tour ready to embrace a woman member?

Nothing in the tour's bylaws would prevent a woman from joining, but Vijay Singh didn't sugarcoat his opinion when he said he hoped Sorenstam would miss the cut at Colonial. Greg Norman also has been outspoken on the subject.

"If the girls come out and think they can play against the guys and fail every time, that can't be very positive," Norman said. "I think the rightful place is that women play on their tour and we play on ours."

That seems to be the minority opinion. PGA Tour members have a problem with women getting sponsor's exemptions because they take away spots from men who are trying to make a living. But if a woman earns her spot through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, that's a different story.

"Heck, if you want to go through tour school and get your card, I think that's incredible," said Charles Howell III. "Why not? If Michelle Wie wants to do that, I think it's awesome. I think that will obviously show she's one hell of a player."

Kelly disagreed with Norman's suggestion that the PGA Tour change its bylaws to exclude women. The LPGA does not allow men to compete on its tour.

"Why would we want to exclude a great golfer who has got a chance to compete at the highest level?" Kelly said. "The tour should not race to exclude women. We are a tour for the best golfers in the world. Period. If any men feel badly about that, they'd better practice pretty hard."

Golf isn't the only sport in which the gender debate is relevant. The Professional Bowlers Association Tour changed its bylaws this year to include women, and last month 30-year-old Liz Johnson became the first woman to qualify for a PBA Tour event.

What was unthinkable a decade ago now seems possible.

"Someone is going to come along, and maybe it's Michelle, that breaks that barrier down," Hayes said. "It would be a good story. I think it would be good for golf."

Whether it would be good for the LPGA Tour is debatable.

Some think it would raise awareness of the women's game and that could only help. But what would it say about the LPGA if the best woman player tees it up somewhere else?

"The LPGA might as well go away," said Debbie Steinbach, a Top 50 teacher at the Venus Golf School in La Quinta, Calif. "Why even have an LPGA Tour? They could close their tent and go home. It would be an inferior tour if you had somebody who was so much better that she went to another tour.

"It would be like watching minor-league baseball. Who cares?"

Votaw chose his words carefully, stressing that LPGA Tour purses will total a record $45 million in 2005 and that he has supported Sorenstam and Wie when they have played in PGA Tour events.

"If Michelle or any other player goes on the PGA Tour and has any kind of success, when they come back they'll be bigger and better stars and we'll benefit from that," Votaw said.

But how would success be defined? Janet Coles, who won four tournaments in a 13-year LPGA Tour career, spoke for many when she said no woman, Wie included, would ever dominate on the men's tour.

"I would want to play to win so I wouldn't want to play on the men's tour all the time," Coles said. "You have to learn the art of domination and you'll never learn it playing against the men. No way. You'll learn to be happy finishing 20th and that's not what it's about."

Votaw said Wie's decision on which tour to play, if it came to that, would depend largely on economics.

"If Michelle can earn $600,000 on the men's tour or $3 million on the LPGA Tour, I think economics would dictate she'll play more on the LPGA Tour," he said.

But that scenario doesn't take into account the potential off- course earnings for the first woman to play full-time on the PGA Tour.

Dean Bonham of The Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing company in Denver, said any woman who was competitive on the men's tour would set new standards for endorsement income.

"The reality is, any woman good enough to compete against men is automatically a female superstar," he said. "That certainly qualifies her for a very high level of endorsement income. If she is competitive playing against men, the sky's the limit."

Whether it is Wie or someone else, many feel a woman playing full-time on the PGA Tour is a question of when, not if.

"It's going to happen," Beisiegel said.

Ready or not, here she comes.

 

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