Michelle Wie turns professional
Sitting in a hotel suite overlooking swaying palms and the rolling Pacific surf, Michelle Wie leaned forward and gazed at the newspaper. The front page was a reminder of how far she's come and the expectations that are greater than ever.
The Honolulu Advertiser ran four pictures of Hawaii's biggest sports sensation in the paper Wednesday. There she was at age 10 with chubby cheeks and a grown-up swing; at age 13 and 14 competing against the pros; and as a celebrity in a formal red dress at last year's Laureus Sports Awards in Portugal.
The headline: ``Why she's worth millions.''
``I don't know why,'' Wie said softly. ``But I'm going to try hard to live up to it.''
Already one of the most famous athletes in the world, Wie became the richest female golfer Wednesday when she stood before a crowded conference room and realized a dream a dozen years in the making.
``I'm finally happy to say I'm a pro starting today,'' said Wie, wearing a pink Nike shirt and high heels that made her stand even taller than 6 feet. ``The first time I grabbed a golf club, I knew I'd do it for the rest of my life. Some 12 years later, I'm finally turning pro, and I'm so excited.''
Wie signed endorsement deals with Nike and Sony, which will pay her as much as $10 million a year.
There was no Tigeresque ``Hello, World'' moment, as there was when Woods turned pro in 1996. Wie looked nervous while waiting to be introduced, flanked by her new agent, Ross Berlin of the William Morris Agency, and executives from her two sponsors.
``Usually at a press conference, I don't have to make a speech,'' she said. ``I don't like making speeches.''
Wie will be judged by her golf, and that's where the expectations lie.
She makes her professional debut next week in the Samsung World Championship in California. Wie also will play the week of Thanksgiving at the Casio World Open in Japan, her sixth time competing against men.
``I know I have to win. That's my priority right now,'' Wie said. ``Everyone expects me to do better and work hard, and I'm going to try my best.''
She has redefined success since winning the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at age 13, the youngest champion of a USGA title for adults. She hasn't hoisted another trophy on her own, but her amazing feats have fanned the hype over her potential.
She shot 68 at the Sony Open as a 14-year-old still wearing a retainer, the lowest score ever by a female competing on a men's tour. She reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Public Links this summer, three rounds away from her long-shot bid of getting into the Masters. She twice has come within a whisker of making the cut on the PGA Tour.
Against the women, Wie has more than held her own.
She was runner-up at the LPGA Championship to Annika Sorenstam, and tied for third at the Women's British Open. She has made the cut in her last 16 LPGA events dating to 2003, and would have earned about $640,870 on the LPGA Tour this year had she not been an amateur. That would have put her 13th on the money list in only seven starts.
``She's the whole package,'' said Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf. ``But it's all potential. It's all in front of her.''
The other Nike client -- Tiger Woods -- took a different route. He won three straight U.S. Amateur titles and dominated every age group until he turned pro in 1996, earning his PGA Tour card with two victories in seven stars. Then came his record-setting victory in the Masters.
Wie still has two years left at Punahou School, and will play only a limited schedule until she graduates. But her marketing appeal is above any other woman in golf -- a 6-footer of Korean heritage who was raised in Hawaii, has loads of charisma and power and a captivating smile to boot.
``What's similar in her and Tiger is they have instantaneous, worldwide appeal,'' Wood said. ``Talk to the guys in Europe. She's going to be huge there. She's just a great story. She's a great Nike story. If there's anybody that can personify 'Just Do It,' it's Michelle.''
Wie is not expected to join the LPGA Tour until she turns 18, although she can play up to eight of its events a year. She also will play a few times on the PGA Tour, and against men and women overseas.
``Michelle is a young woman with phenomenal talent who brings the promise of incredible performance and a marketability that will draw fans of all ages from all corners of the world into the sport of golf like never before,'' LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens said.
Wie's endorsement package is about $3 million more than what Sorenstam gets each year, even though the Swede has won 66 times on the LPGA Tour and nine majors.
Asked if she had any advice for the teen prodigy, Sorenstam said:
``So far, I think she is doing pretty good on her own. I think the key though is ... it needs to be fun. It's very important to have a passion for the game and play golf for the right reasons.''
Woods has never played with Wie, but does not question her ability.
``When I was 16, I wasn't even thinking about turning pro. I was just hoping to get into college somewhere,'' he said. ``She has a talent, and has been good enough to make a giant step like that.''
The first big step came Wednesday, with an announcement everyone knew was coming.
Her parents were there, of course. B.J. Wie took pictures of his only child as she sat on the stage.
``Bringing her down the stairs, it felt like it was a wedding,'' he said. ``It was a strange feeling. Becoming a professional means she will have more responsibility. She has to be able to handle much higher expectations. She'll have extra pressure.''
And the money?
Her father already has set up a trust that Wie can access when he feels she is ready. But he noted that she already has made sound stock investments using money she earned playing friendly matches against his pals.
``Her purse was filled with $5 bills,'' Dad said.
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