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Marketing frenzy around Michelle Wie

The biggest golf marketing feeding frenzy since Tiger Woods turned pro is about to be unleashed.

Teenage prodigy Michelle Wie will reportedly announce tomorrow she's turning pro – six days before her 16th birthday.

Before she hits a ball in professional anger, Wie will be a multi-millionaire, thanks to deals with Nike and Sony.

She is being handled not by a recognised golf PR company but by Hollywood agency William Morris, better known for its dealings with movie stars such as Clint Eastwood and John Travolta.

Experts estimate Wie will earn between $US8 million and $US10 million ($10.5 million and 13.1 million) in endorsements in her first year – making her the third highest paid female athlete on the Forbes magazine rich list.

Only glamorous Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova ($20.9 million in endorsements) and Serena Williams ($14.4 million) earn more.

There is also talk of launching a special Wie clothing line as well a jewellery range, bringing in a possible $19.6 million to $26.2 million a year.

"Once the apparel line gets rolling and you have a couple other major endorsements her earning could reach $39.3 million to $52.4 million a year.

There is such a shortage of women in the market place," said Brandon Steiner of Steiner Sports Marketing told USA Today.

Wie, born in Hawaii but with a Korean background, is also eyeing the lucrative Asian market.

The 15-year-old is already fluent in Korean and is studying Japanese and Chinese, making her market reach simply stunning.

But while no one begrudges Wie her new-found fortune, there are growing doubts among golf experts as to what she will bring to the game, and if it will benefit from her presence.

Part of the unease is caused by Wie's determination to play on the men's Tour, going head-to-head with Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson et al.

For the marketing gurus such a scenario has them counting the dollars ... in millions.

"Anytime you can have a women compete with men it engages people. It always has," said Steiner.

Wie's coach, David Leadbetter, has no doubt she will cut it in the men's ranks.

But while comparisons are made between Wood's dramatic launch onto the professional circuit and Wie's there is no comparasion.

Woods already had three US amateur titles under his belt in three years as well as three US junior amateur victories - a proven winner.

Wie has only one significant victory on her CV – the 2003 US women's amateur public links championship.

That she is gifted no one doubts. She has played in three US PGA Tour events - failing to make the cut against male rivals - but was second to Sorenstam at this year's LPGA Championship and shared third at the US Women's Open.

She would be in the top 15 of the women's money list this season if she had competed as a pro.

Many sponsors of the men's Tour are thrilled at the prospect of seeing Wie play against the "big boys".

Golf in the US and Europe is short on characters – TV viewing figures are dropping and the USPGA is in the middle of renegoiating its US television rights.

Wie might just increase its bargining power.

Clair Peterson, tournament director of the John Deere Classic which had Wie in its field this year, credited the Hawaiian with helping boost ticket sales.

"For those who measure by the bottom line, the John Deere Classic sold 10,000 more tickets from 2004 to 2005," said Peterson.

But the question remains, if Wie does not come out winning from the start how long will the spectators continue to come?

World No.2 Singh has no doubt about Wie's golfing talents – in the women's game.

"She has a lot of ability. She's going to be a champion. I hope she realises there's a big future for her in ladies golf. She could break a lot of records and be even better than Annika (Sorenstam)

"But she has to play in her tour. She has to learn how to win.

"Finishing second is not going to do her any good. If she had 10 seconds it's not going to do her any good in the long run. You break records by winning tournaments," said Singh.

But Wie is a determined teenager and wants to qualify for the men's tour.

"We've been encouraging her since she started playing golf," said her father BJ. "We were always talking, joking about how to beat Tiger, about (if she) can she play in the Masters?

"Girls have big dreams. She started thinking about those things herself. We didn't do it purposely to market her. That is all a byproduct."

Wie will make her pro debut at the October 13-16 LPGA Samsung world championship at Palm Desert, California.

But she is also set to play November 24-27 in Kochi, Japan, at the $1.6 million Casio World Open for men – one of the richest events on the Japanese Tour.

How she handles those two events will give an early insight into whether Wie is the future of golf or simply a marketing miracle.

 

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