Michelle Wie may feel a backlash to big contracts
Michelle Wie has loads of money in the bank, all because she turned pro and signed her name at the bottom of two endorsement contracts.
Making friends might be a little tougher.
Wie turned 16 on Oct. 11, finally old enough to drive. And while she is blazing her own trails in golf, Wie should expect to hit a few bumps along the road in the form of jealously and resentment.
She certainly won't be the first young prodigy to encounter those. Remember Tiger Woods?
"I hadn't done anything on the PGA Tour ... and I got big contracts,'' Woods said, recalling the resentment he felt when he turned pro in 1996.
Woods had the best amateur career this side of Bobby Jones. He missed the cut the first seven times he played on the PGA Tour, but he shot 66 in the '96 British Open and tied for 22nd in his last major as an amateur. Nike thought so much of his potential that they awarded him a five-year contract worth $40 million.
The money was outrageous at the time, and so was the reaction on tour.
"Some guys gave me the cold shoulder,'' Woods said. "Some guys wouldn't talk to me at all.''
That didn't last long, as Woods won twice in seven starts to not only secure his PGA Tour card, but to finish in the top 30 on the money list and qualify for the Tour Championship.
Then there was Kelli Kuehne.
She turned pro at the end of 1996 and brought similar credentials -- two straight U.S. Women's Amateurs and the Women's British Amateur during her All-American years at Texas.
Her endorsement deal with Nike sent shock waves throughout the LPGA Tour, where women battle for a fraction of the money paid to the men. Worse yet, Nike had just cut loose one-third of its LPGA staff -- including Juli Inkster and Beth Daniel -- saying it wanted to go with youth.
A year later, the swoosh signed up Kuehne for about $1.25 million a year, enormous money for the LPGA Tour, astounding considering Kuehne didn't turn pro until Q-School was over. She had no card, and no place to play.
The reaction was so severe that Sports Illustrated estimated 140 out of 150 players refused to wear anything Nike.
"Women are very competitive, in case you haven't noticed,'' Kuehne said. "And women tend to hold grudges -- not just on our tour, but women in general. Once I started playing well, it wasn't an issue any more. I don't think anyone wanted me to fail, but I remember some girls resented me. It's all part of being a rookie.''
Wie at least has experience on her side. She has been dealing with resentment ever since she started getting a full slate of sponsor's exemptions at age 13.
"When you have talent like that,'' Cristie Kerr said, "you're always going to have a little controversy around it.''
Some players were indignant when she received an exemption last year to the U.S. Women's Open, especially when it was announced as the Curtis Cup team was preparing for a weekend of practice and bonding. All of Wie's teammates had to go through qualifying for the Open.
Wie again got preferential treatment when the McDonald's LPGA Championship changed its criteria to award an exemption to a top amateur -- guess who? -- making her the first amateur to ever play in that major.
Now comes the money, contracts from Nike and Sony worth as much as $10 million a year. That's about $3 million more than what Annika Sorenstam pulls in, even though the Swede has won nine majors and the career Grand Slam.
"She's going to make something like $10 million? For what? For winning one tournament?'' sniffed 17-year-old Morgan Pressel, the reigning U.S. Women's Amateur champion and a prolific champion in junior golf, in Fortune Magazine.
The reference was to the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links that Wie won at age 13, which first cranked up the hype over this Hawaii sensation. Wie hasn't won another tournament since, although no one denies her talent.
She had three runner-up finishes on the LPGA Tour this year, including the McDonald's LPGA Championship. She tied for third at the Women's British Open. And in just seven starts, she would have earned $640,870, enough to put her 13th on the LPGA Tour money list.
That's why Woods thinks she might have an easier time than he did.
"She's been out there,'' he said. "She has played in so many tournaments out there. I only played in the majors that I qualified for through [winning] the Amateur, then maybe one other. I didn't really do much. Plus, I didn't have success at the tour level, where she has. And that's the difference.''
Is she worth what Nike and Sony are paying?
No matter what she does, Wie brings attention wherever she goes. TV ratings were up 54 percent when she played in the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour, the tournament's gross receipts were up 40 percent.
"Do I think Michelle will get animosity? A little bit,'' Kuehne said. "But she's proven that she's certainly capable of earning a damn good living on our tour.''
LPGA Tour Commissioner Carolyn Bivens met with players when Wie announced she was turning pro. They know what's coming, because they have seen it before.
The commissioner's plea was to look at the big picture.
"Carolyn told us we can all form whatever opinion you want for the moment,'' Meg Mallon said. "But this girl is going to be good for you.''
December 29, 2005
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