Wie joins club, pockets millions

A week shy of 16th birthday, phenom goes pro

Golf

October 06, 2005|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

Like most teenagers, Michelle Wie couldn't wait to blurt out what had become golf's worst-kept secret.

A week shy of her 16th birthday, Wie announced in a televised news conference yesterday in Honolulu that she has turned professional. She will make her playing debut as a pro next week at the Samsung World Championship, an LPGA tournament scheduled for Palm Desert, Calif.

More significantly, Wie will immediately start drawing endorsement paychecks from Nike and Sony.

Though no contract figures have been made public, it has been widely reported that Wie will earn about $10 million a year, double that of the LPGA's reigning and reluctant superstar, Annika Sorenstam. Those endorsement figures are expected to rise exponentially as Wie develops as a player.

"Turning pro has a lot of benefits," said Wie, who under current rules can't officially become a member of the LPGA Tour until her 18th birthday, unless she petitions the commissioner.

Speaking at a news conference held at 9 a.m. local time so she wouldn't miss all her classes at the private school she attends, and accompanied by her parents and new business partners, Wie said she plans to donate $500,000 to the U.S. Golf Hurricane Relief Fund.

"Finally, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be in a position to help people," she said.

Even before turning pro, Wie played like one. She finished second in three LPGA events this year, including in the McDonald's LPGA Championship, one of four women's majors, at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre De Grace in June.

Wie, who started playing in professional tournaments when she was 11, doesn't plan on limiting her future to the LPGA. She is expected to continue getting sponsor's exemptions to PGA Tour events, as well as to events such as the Skins Game.

Asked if the expectations of others will change now, Wie said, "I realize everyone is going to have higher expectations, but it's going to be very exciting. Everything is at a higher stake. ... I'm really looking forward to it."

The announcement is a culmination of a dream that began when Wie first picked up a golf club at age 4, and was taught the game by her mother, Bo, a former amateur champion in Korea, as well as her father, B.J., a professor at the University of Hawaii.

"The first time I grabbed a golf club I knew I'd do it for the rest of my life, I loved it," Michelle Wie said. "Some 12 years later, I'm finally turning pro, and I'm so excited. ... More than ever before, I am going to work harder to become the best golfer in the world."

Wie said she has been contemplating this decision for a while.

"I've been thinking about it for a really long time, when's the right time," she said. "But it all came down to the last couple of months, really. I felt really ready. I felt mature enough. I felt really comfortable playing out there. I felt like it was the right time."

Wie said despite her decision to give up her amateur status, she will finish high school and still has plans to take college classes with the idea of graduating "no matter how long it takes."

Wie can play in as many as eight LPGA tournaments next year, with six from sponsor's exemptions.

Said Bob Wood, the president of Nike Golf: "What excites us is that she has the potential to transcend her sport, like many great athletes. From a Nike brand perspective, it's going to be great to tell that story as it unfolds and watch Michelle accomplish her dreams."

Asked why she chose the William Morris Agency, primarily an entertainment management company, to represent her over a sports management company such as IMG, which represents Tiger Woods, among others, Wie said with a laugh, "It all came down to me being basically an only child, and I'm used to exclusivity."

Ross Berlin, a former PGA Tour official who joined William Morris earlier this year in order to work with Wie, said at yesterday's news conference that "this is a very exciting day in the life of a very special young lady."

If there is any doubt about Wie, it's whether her lack of amateur wins will hurt her as a pro.

"She's got a couple of years' grace period. If she keeps doing what she's done the past year, I think Nike would be more than happy," said Kurt Badenhausen, an associate editor at Forbes magazine. She'll be more than worth the investment for Nike if she does that. Long-term, she certainly has to win."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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