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Michelle Wie classic marketing dream

The sports marketplace works in mysterious ways, but there is nothing mysterious about the appeal of a 6-foot-tall teen who hits a golf ball over 300 yards and wants to play against the men more than she does the women.

There's even less mystery about where the $10 million or so in Michelle Wie's bank accounts came from: Those five swooshes she was wearing on her 16th birthday Tuesday should make that fairly obvious.

Nike clearly believes she's the female version of Tiger Woods, and will likely soon be investing even more millions in TV commercials to make sure the world believes the same thing. It worked with Woods, and there's no reason to believe it can't work with the photogenic Wie.

With all that behind her, you might think her coming out party at the Samsung World Championship this week would be a momentous event for women's golf. It's not, but don't blame Wie for that. The problem is, women's golf is still just women's golf. Most players on the LPGA Tour have the charisma of a 2-iron, play is often so ponderous that it's excruciating to watch and the courses are set up so easy that every hole is a driver and wedge to the green.

Wie can't do anything about that, even with Nike's help. Where she will generate excitement is the same place Sorenstam managed to get noticed -- playing against the men.

Wie's decision to turn pro probably cost her any short term chance of playing in the Masters, but there are plenty of tournaments like the John Deere Classic more than eager to give her a sponsor invite.

Wie made it clear Tuesday that she wants to gain distance, gain consistency and challenge the best players in the world -- who all happen to be men. There's nothing sexist about that. It's just reality, one that Wie seems to understand well.

``It's still going to be my goal to be able to make the cut, to be able to compete in the PGA events and to one day play in the Masters,'' Wie said.

Nike is counting on just that because no matter how well Wie does on the LPGA Tour, it won't be enough. Wie draws eyeballs, but she won't be drawing many of them on the LPGA Tour. She is not expected to join the tour until she turns 18, leaving her only eight tournaments a year to increase the visibility of women's golf.

The rest of the time, Wie will be accepting sponsor exemptions to play against the men or playing in Asia. The few LPGA tournaments she does play will likely do better, but so far Wie has proven more of a curiosity than a draw who can bring in huge crowds like Woods or boost TV ratings. Besides, people have already seen her competing in LPGA majors as a 13-year-old, so what is more compelling about her doing the same thing at the age of 16?

Woods, in some ways, had it easier. He also had the help of the world's richest shoemaker, but he also had the PGA Tour as his stage and he used it well. It was Nike that trumpeted Woods' arrival with the ``Hello World'' commercials following his pro debut in 1996. But Woods also won quickly -- and often -- and soon transformed the sport. Tournament purses doubled, tripled and then quadrupled.

Everyone on the PGA Tour became a millionaire, or so it seemed. Total prize money increased from $70 million nine years ago to $252 million this year. Wie took a day off school last week to sign on the dotted line contracts that pay her more in endorsements than the greatest female player of our time -- and perhaps any time -- Annika Sorenstam.

That happened despite the fact Wie hasn't hit a shot as a pro. Image, as Andre Agassi used to note in television commercials, is everything. That's why it doesn't matter that Wie hasn't won a tournament of note since she was 13, while Sorenstam has 66 LPGA tour wins and nine major titles.

What matters is what sells, and Sorenstam's shy smile doesn't stand a chance against a teen with huge earrings who's pounding drives 50 yards past everyone else and refusing to be intimidated even when she plays against men.

``For some reason, she is the chosen one,'' Cristie Kerr said.

``People just want to turn on the TV and watch, and that's good for the rest of us. She's just got this aura around her that makes people want to pay attention.''

Like it or not -- and many of her future competitors on the LPGA Tour surely don't -- Wie tees off Thursday as the new face of women's golf. Get used to it because the Nike marketing machine hasn't even begun to crank things up yet.

``She's a great Nike story,'' Nike Golf president Bob Wood said last week.

``If there's anybody that can personify `Just Do It,' it's Michelle.

'' Playing for cash changes a lot of things for Wie. Unfortunately for the rest of the LPGA Tour, though, it won't change much for women's golf.

October 13, 2005

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