Wednesday, January 12, 2005

What's next for Michelle Wie?

I wrote this piece for PGATour.com last year when there was a different editorial team in place. The piece was given the go for publication and then turned down at the last moment when a senior exec at the tour got worried about its content. Anyway, I see more players are questioning Michelle Wie's continuing decision to play PGA Tour events -- including Tiger Woods. So, for the first time in public, here's my take on Michelle Wie.

By Robert Thompson
The Big Wiesy will make her PGA Tour debut today at the Sony Open, but one has to wonder why there hasn’t been any attempt to stop this amusement ride before it comes off the rails.
First, it must be stated that Michelle Wie may be the best 14-year-old golfer in the world. She may even be a future LPGA champion. But accepting an offer to play with PGA Tour pros — players significantly out of Wie’s league — demonstrates a lack of foresight and judgment on the part of her parents.
While 2003 may have been "The Year of the Woman" in professional golf, a competitive breakthrough never occurred. Suzy Whaley managed to qualify for the Greater Hartford Open in questionable fashion, but failed to get near the cut line. Even Annika Sorenstam, arguably the best female golfer of all time, couldn’t successfully make weekend play at the Bank of America Colonial.
So what makes Wie so special? She is clearly the best of a number of teenaged female players, including Aree and Naree Wongluekiet, who occasionally tee it up on the LPGA Tour. Her skills are maturing, but right now, Wie has not proven she can rise to the top of the LPGA leaderboards, unlike Sorenstam, who has won more than 40 times on the LPGA Tour.
While Wie’s public image has been on the rise over the past year, the cameras have shown her game to be uneven. Last year she failed to make the cut in events on the Canadian Tour and Nationwide Tour, both with standards below the PGA Tour. Sorenstam’s lack of success on her lone shot at the Tour would suggest Wie doesn’t have a chance this week.
Nonetheless, it was determined by sponsors that Wie, a local girl and media celebrity, should be offered an exemption to the tournament. Fair enough — that is the Sony Open’s prerogative.
Consider for a moment to whom the tournament offered its exemption: a female. Check. Been there, done that. But there’s an overriding factor here — the tournament’s organizers also decided to offer a spot to a girl who not only is just 14, but one who is poised to become the youngest person ever to appear on the PGA Tour. Consider that for a moment. The youngest. Ever.
It is understandable that the sponsors of the Sony Open would want Wie at the tournament. Given that, it is hard to imagine she can do anything other than fail this week in Hawaii.
Wie may be talented and able to hit her tee shots great distances, but it is still a mistake to take someone so young and prematurely place them under the spotlight of the media and against players with whom she cannot be competitive. Consider how other so-called teenaged phenoms have done in golf and other sports in the past few years. Ty Tryon, perhaps the last teenager to garner as much attention as Wie, managed to make only four cuts last year and saw weekend play only once in 2002.
You’ve got to wonder whether Tryon and his family now consider it a smart decision to try the Tour at such a young age. He could become the next Justin Rose, the British teen star who turned pro after a single strong appearance at the British Open at the age of 17. While Rose went on to miss 20 cuts in a row on the European tour, he eventually blossomed into a genuine world-class player. There’s still hope for Tryon, who is playing on the Nationwide Tour this year. Time will tell.
My biggest concern is that Wie, who seems quite well-adjusted considering the media scrutiny she’s constantly under, could become the next Jennifer Capriati, once the teenage darling of tennis. The comparisons are striking — after all, Capriati beat ranked 18-year-olds before she was a teenager. She turned pro at 13 and by 1991, at the age of 14, was ranked in the top 10 in the world.
But by 1993, she had flamed out, burned by media scrutiny and the pressure of the spotlight. It would take her eight years to make a full comeback.
It seems odd that people continue to ignore the true model for teenage success: Tiger Woods. Earl Woods would not allow his son to tackle a PGA Tour event until he was 16. Tiger discarded pressure to turn pro early — "I would rather spend four years here at Stanford and improve myself," Woods said at the time — and did not try to crack the tour until he had won three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles.
What did he gain from the extra time spent playing largely against golfers of similar age and ability? He learned not only how to win — a valuable skill that can’t be overlooked — but also how to dominate his opponents. It’s a factor that still plays an important role in his status as the best golfer in the world. It is a factor that Wie’s father, who still functions as her caddie, seems to be overlooking.
I’m not suggesting anything as sordid as Capriati’s experience will happen to Wie, especially since there seems to be a support structure around the latter teenager. The bigger concern — and I think this is a huge issue for the LPGA — is that Wie might bow under the pressure or see her game falter and not become the next female golfing superstar, the heir apparent to Sorenstam. If that happens, maybe people will finally question the "wisdom" of having a 14-year-old girl playing a PGA Tour event.
-30-








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