The whiz kids

Michelle Wie leads a pack of prodigies enjoying the fruits of early fame but facing the pressure of great expectations

LPGA Championship

June 11, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Even among this country's hundreds of sports prodigies, Michelle Wie stands out.

Maybe it's her perfect golf swing. Maybe it's her physical stature and magnetic smile. Maybe it's because she does things that women's players, especially 16-year-old ones, aren't supposed to do.

Maryland golf fans are seeing it up close this weekend, just as they did last year. After three rounds of the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace, she is tied for third place, one stroke off the lead. Last year she finished second in the event.

When the teenager rolls her muscular shoulders and sends balls burning low and hard, 280 yards down the fairway, Wie seems like a descendant of Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain more than, say, Annika Sorenstam. In her presence, fans feel they might see something awesome.

Wie stands near the front of a current pack of sports prodigies that includes NBA star LeBron James, swimmer Michael Phelps, soccer's Freddy Adu and the NHL's Sidney Crosby. Like them, she has the world's attention at an age when most teens are just worried about getting a driver's license. And like them, she seems to have expanded the scope of her sport.

"She brings the possibility of doing what no one else has done," said Kurt Badenhausen, a senior editor at Forbes who studies sports business. "That's what Michelle Wie has. There are a lot of great women's golfers, but there aren't a lot who say they want to win the Masters."

Wie also may be something new because she's a female prodigy whose athletic and financial goals were calculated on a male scale. The Hawaiian grew up idolizing Tiger Woods, not Nancy Lopez. She keeps trying to qualify for men's tournaments. She has a Nike deal that most NBA players would envy.

On Monday in a sectional qualifier in Summit, N.J., Wie was in the running to become the first female to compete in a men's major - next week's U.S. Open - but came up short in the final holes.

But in many ways, Wie is no different from any other sports prodigy who receives millions of dollars (at $10 million a year, she ranks third among female athletes behind tennis' Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams) based on the whiff of promise. She has performed well in professional tournaments but hasn't won one.

Along with those who adore her, there are plenty of critics - more accomplished players who think she has gotten too much attention, writers who say she is more hype than substance, male golfers who say she has no business receiving exemptions to play in their tournaments.

Long line of success

The prodigy is a familiar species of sports hero in this country. Everyone has a favorite -17-year-old Bob Feller throwing 100-mph fastballs straight off the cornfields of Iowa; 16-year-old whippet Tracy Austin out-rallying Chris Evert at the U.S. Open; the 18-year-old James dunking on grown men.

Some young stars, such as James and Woods, have surpassed the most impossible expectations. Others, such as pitcher David Clyde and quarterback Todd Marinovich, failed just as spectacularly. Jennifer Capriati did it all, wowing crowds as a 13-year-old tennis pro, appearing bleary-eyed in a police mug shot at age 18 and returning to win three majors in her mid-20s.

For better or worse, fans, talent evaluators and shoe companies are always prospecting for the next big thing. The payoff for a hit such as Woods or James is so high that it can compensate for 100 misses.

Should someone so young be exposed to such adulation?

Tom McMillen was a 17-year-old from small-town Pennsylvania when he became the second high school athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970. That was fun. The hounding that the basketball star experienced during an epic Atlantic Coast Conference recruiting battle wasn't.

"It's a lot to put on a kid," the former University of Maryland star said. "It was a meltdown in my little town. And it would just be madness today."

McMillen, who went on to the NBA and Congress, said he applauds and cringes a little when he sees a precocious talent like Wie.

"It's a very distorting environment," he said. "To become that kind of athlete, you have to make a lot of sacrifices, and it's a lot harder now than it was. But if I had a kid who was 13 or 14 and had the talent, I certainly wouldn't tell them not to pursue it."

Don't hold back

Experts on sports parenting say talented kids can be hurt worse if they're held back.

"If someone is truly gifted in a particular area, whether it's the violin or shooting a basketball, they're going to be drawn to it in a very compelling way," said Dan Doyle, a longtime coach who's writing an encyclopedia on the parenting of athletes. "It's a big mistake to suppress that."

Doyle said Wie's parents seem to have raised her well, encouraging her gift without neglecting her schooling or emotional maturity. She's better off, he said, than kids without her talent or drive who are pushed to act like prodigies by overzealous parents.

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