The golf road few have taken

Michelle Wie has been following an unorthodox path as a pro

Lpga Championship

June 07, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

JoAnne Carner didn't turn pro until she was past her 30th birthday and within five years had become the No. 1 player on the LPGA Tour. Judy Rankin gave up her amateur status as a 17-year-old and took more than six seasons before she finally won.

By the time they were finished, Carner and Rankin were considered among the best women ever to play the game. Both are in the Hall of Fame, evidence to the fact that there is more than one road to take in order to get to the sport's ultimate destination.

Then there is the route Michelle Wie has traveled.

It is uncharted in golf history but certainly not unchallenged by those who preceded her. Whether the 16-year-old who turned pro last October will outgrow her status as a prodigy and become a consistent champion, and possibly a Hall of Famer, remains in question.

"This is something that will be debated with Michelle for years and years and years," said LPGA veteran Beth Daniel, who qualified for the Hall of Fame in 1999. "They may be debating this about Michelle until after I die. It's being done differently. Who's to say if they are right or wrong?"

Going into this year's McDonald's LPGA Championship, which begins tomorrow at Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace, Wie hasn't won a tournament since a victory at the 2003 Women's Amateur Public Links. She has come close several times, most recently at this year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco.

There she finished tied for third, one shot out of a playoff. Wie will return this week to the site of one of her three second-place finishes in 2005, where she came in three strokes behind Annika Sorenstam, with hopes of becoming the youngest winner in the 56-year history of the LPGA.

Unlike her longtime hero, Tiger Woods, who put together one of the most impressive amateur records in the modern game and didn't turn pro until after his sophomore year at Stanford, Wie stopped playing amateur events after losing as a 14-year-old in the 2004 U.S. Women's Amateur.

Wie and her parents have been criticized for not taking a more traditional, sustained path as an amateur and for stating that her goal is to one day play on the PGA Tour instead of going head-to-head with Sorenstam and others as a regular member of the LPGA.

"I don't think it's right to criticize someone in what they believe in," Wie said earlier this year.

Wie and her family have heard the whispers that they are in it as much for making money as history. Upon turning pro, Wie signed endorsements with Nike and Sony that are worth a reported $10 million. She subsequently signed other contracts worth a reported $5 million and also has received appearance fees for tournaments in Japan and South Korea worth an estimated $700,000 and $1.5 million per event.

At the tournament in South Korea, Wie became the first woman to make a cut in a men's tournament since the legendary Babe Zaharias at the 1945 Los Angeles Open.

"Obviously, I do want to win everything when I come out here, but I just don't want to put that much pressure on myself," said Wie, who will be a senior at a private high school in Honolulu in the fall and still plans to attend college, hoping to follow Woods to Stanford. "I'm just here to have fun, to play well, to win. That's what I'm all about."

Earlier this week, Wie tried to qualify for the men's U.S. Open that will be played next week at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y. After making it through local qualifying in Hawaii, Wie failed to earn a spot out of the sectional qualifying at Canoe Brook in Summit, N.J.

Carner, a two-time U.S. Women's Open champion who won 43 events overall in her career, said she isn't surprised that Wie's success in men's tournaments has been minimal so far.

"I look at the men's tour, and if you can't go out and shoot 64, you're not going to win," said Carner. "And I don't think Michelle's game [is good enough for] 64. Even on the ladies tour, she's not shooting 64. I don't see the numbers there for her."

Wie said earlier this year that playing in men's events will eventually help her win women's events. Carner doesn't understand why Wie seems so consumed with playing in men's events or eschewing her amateur status at such a young age.

"To me, it's like running your head against the wall. Why are you out there playing and trying to make the cut when you could be playing [women's events] and winning?" said Carner. "She will win, I would guess this year. She's just going about it in such a weird way."

But Rankin, who turned pro out of high school and won 26 events before her career was cut short by a back injury, said Wie's plan is working on several levels.

"Were she less talented, this would not have even been an option," said Rankin, now a television golf analyst on the men's and women's tours. "Where I think they are now is, I think they've been fairly brilliant at managing how they were really going to secure her bank account for life."

Has Wie traded in financial security for her legacy as a golfer?

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