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Michelle Wie settling down to double life

On a golf course, she's a celebrity in the glare of the international spotlight.

At home, Michelle Wie is a high school sophomore who hangs out at the mall, plays video games and faces the usual teen challenges -- such as how to keep chats with pals on her new cellphone within the allotted 100 monthly minutes. Extra charges will come straight out of her allowance, her father warns.

"I don't know how that will work out," she said, smiling and shaking her head.

Wie, who tied for 13th in the Samsung World Championship last fall to wrap up her seven 2004 LPGA appearances, skillfully balances a double life.

"I'm not stupid enough that I would not enjoy myself coming out here. I'm not really that stupid. If I'm not enjoying myself, I wouldn't be coming out here and playing," Wie said.

"I'm having a great time. It's kind of fun missing school and I'm having a lot of fun travelling with my family."

Some times are more enjoyable than others.

"It's more fun when your putts are going in," Wie said, grinning.

Proclaimed by Laura Davies as the LPGA's future Tiger Woods, the slender, six-foot teenager with the silky smooth swing launches 300-yard drives and is the same type of golf prodigy Woods once was.

"She's impressive, very talented," six-time LPGA player of the year Annika Sorenstam said. "She hits the ball a long way and she's very mature on the golf course. I love her golf swing."

Wie, who played her first LPGA tournament at age 12, has competed in 17 women's tour events. She also played in the PGA Tour's Sony Open last January, where she was at even-par through 36 holes, missing the cut by one stroke and finishing tied for 80th -- ahead of 48 men. She'll be in the Sony field again next week.

In 2004, she finished fourth in one of the women's majors, tied for 13th in another and finished out of the top 20 only once.

Her father, B.J., is a professor at the University of Hawaii. Her mother, Bo, works in real estate. They are determined that their daughter enjoys the best of both worlds.

"Some people may think it's really challenging for parents to take care of a well-known golfer," B.J. said. "We haven't changed anything. Being a young golf star is different from being a young star in Hollywood, or in music.

"She likes movies, reading, music. She makes good grades, and since she mostly plays in tournaments during summer vacation, she only misses a couple of weeks of school."

Her classes sound like a load, but Michelle insists that she enjoys them.

"I'm taking Japanese and a new class, conceptual physics, it's really fun," she said. "I'm also taking trig and English, Asian history and foundation art."

"She's been able to handle all the attention and is having a normal childhood," Bo said. "The only difference is, she plays golf."

B.J. said the goal is for Michelle to lead an ordinary -- and extraordinary -- life.

"We want her to have it normal, then abnormal, become a very, very great golfer, very rich, with a rich personal life," he said. "Most of all, we want her to be happy."

Michelle, who turned 15 on Oct. 11, is a friendly, articulate youngster who seems quite happy.

"She should just have fun playing now, and I think that's what she's doing," said Davies, a winner of four majors. "When she turns pro, it becomes a job."

Her amateur status does keep some pressure off Wie -- she's never had to stand over a "money putt."

When she returned home from the Samsung World Championship, Wie left without a $15,500 check she would have received for tying for 13th in the elite 20-player field. Her best finish in 17 LPGA events, a fourth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship last March, would have been worth $82,000.

She has passed up some $250,000 in prize money. Then there are the millions she could earn in endorsements.

Wie, who said she's not sure when she will turn pro, avoids the money list.

"Whenever I look, they always put a zero next to my name. I get mad about that, so I don't look. I did look to see how much I would have gotten after the U.S. Open, and it's pretty cool," she said, referring to the $60,000 or so she would have received for tying for 13th.

"I think I have to be a little bit older and more mature to handle that kind of money. I think I'm making a good choice right now."

Bo said Michelle intends to give back to the sport and to society, noting that she already is honorary chair of a library foundation in Honolulu and active in other charitable work. Bo cannot help but feel a parent's sense of pride.

"At the Kraft Nabisco, when the spectators gave her a standing ovation as she walked up to the 18th green, some of them even bowed," Bo said. "I was crying."

Wie's future is brighter than ever, but how long will it take her to figure it out?

She says she wants to go to college -- but that's still a few years away.

Her father says he is comfortable with the LPGA Tour's age limit of 18, but what happens if Wie were to win a tournament? What if it's the U.S. Women's Open, the richest prize in women's golf worth $558,000?

B.J. Wie considered the future while watching his daughter blend in with the best on the LPGA Tour -- taller than most of them, longer than all of them.

"Michelle is really interested in going to Stanford,'' he said. "But we're looking at alternatives, based on her desire to attend college.''

One scenario: She goes to Stanford and plays for the Cardinal. The only thing left to decide is whether she competes for the men's team or the women's team.

Another scenario: She goes to college and plays the LPGA Tour in her spare time.

"This is a new route that could be a good example for other young players,'' B.J. Wie said.

Another possibility -- the one that seems most realistic -- is for Wie to petition LPGA Tour Commissioner Ty Votaw to turn pro before her 18th birthday.

The precedent is Aree Song, who has a lot in common with Wie.

Song -- previously known as Wonglukiet -- was 13 when she played in the final group at Nabisco four years ago. She played on the Futures Tour as an amateur, finished fifth at the U.S. Women's Open last year and signed with Florida before deciding to go through LPGA Q-School in the fall of 2003 and following up with a solid rookie year in 2004.

"There could be nothing better you can do,'' Song said, referring to her career. "It certainly beats school.''

"Aree made the right decision for her and her family,'' B.J. Wie said. "Physically and mentally, she is a very good player.''

Even so, B.J. Wie insists this is not the path for his daughter. He has more than golf in mind.

"It's highly unlikely that Michelle turns pro without attending college,'' he said. "She thinks college is really good for her. She believes she needs a transition period, departing from us, doing chores like laundry, cooking for herself. She likes to be more independent.''

 

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