The Next Big Thing

This is a heady time for women's golf. Two teenage challengers are coming into the game while the undisputed best female golfer on the planet is still running strong. It's as if Tiger Woods and Jack Nicholson began their pro careers while Arnold Palmer was in the sunset of his prime.

For our purposes, women's golf is the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), which (I know you'll want to hear this) was established in 1950, the same year Gene Autry's "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" topped the hit parade.

As you might imagine, it wasn't easy for the LPGA at first, so we'll skip their first 44 years and begin with Annika Sorenstam's rookie season. She was Rookie of the Year in 1994. Sorenstam won the U.S. Women's Open the following year and again in 1996.

Sorenstam, 35, has won 64 LPGA tournaments to date, including nine majors. She holds seven Rolex Player of the Year awards, and is a lock to win her eighth this year. Follows is a snapshot of her last six golfing years: she won 8 tournaments in 2000, 8 in 2001, 11 tour victories in 2002, 6 wins in 2003, 8 wins in 2004, and 8 wins so far in 2005.

Sorenstam is, by far, the tour's number-one career money earner with $17 million and change in her account. And she possesses the exceedingly rare, universally desired, world class athletic official pedigree, meaning she makes more money per year on endorsements ($6 million) than by way of actual athletic earnings ($2,200,000 in 2005). I should mention she played in a men's PGA tournament in 2003, the Colonial. She shot 145 over two rounds, missed the cut by four strokes, and comported herself with enormous dignity, courage, and humor.

But, if you'll look over here, coming out of the gate, or, more precisely, coming out of the bank, is the Next Big Thing, Michelle Wie. She's starting early, turning pro at the age of 15, six days shy of her 16th birthday. Tiger, after winning six consecutive amateur championships, declared himself a professional at the age of 20.

Where to start with Wie? She was born and lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her parents had her on the golf range at the usual age, four. Wie plays golf four hours a day during the week, seven hours a day on weekends. I expect Wie to kill her parents by the time she's 40. She played in the 2000 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship at the age of 10. Two years later, she qualified for an LPGA tournament, the Takefuji Classic. The following year she won the Women's Amateur Public Links. The following year, 2004, she played in a tournament on the PGA Tour (Sony Open), and missed the cut by one stroke.

This year, as an amateur, she came in second at the SBS Open and finished second at the LPGA Championship, three strokes behind Annika Sorenstam. She traveled to France, played in the Evian Masters, tied for second, eight strokes behind Paula Creamer. On to the Women's British Open, where she tied for third place. She was 15 years old.

The thing about the future is, nobody knows what will happen. So, we don't know what will happene to Michelle Wie. Still, that never stopped anyone from making a bet. Nike and Sony are betting $10 million that Michelle Wie will be the next Tiger Woods.

The media is along for the ride. Last week's Samsung World Championship was all about Wie from her first drive to her DQ. Few people noticed that the winner, Annika Sorenstam, finished eight strokes ahead of her nearest competitor, the aforementioned Paula Creamer. Had Wie not been disqualified, she would have finished fourth.

Wie plans on playing both PGA and LPGA Tours. She's already played in five men's tournaments, her first one at the age of 13. Pull that off, and she'd transcend her sport, become a Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, or Babe Ruth.

She is tall, beautiful, an honors student, speaks Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. She'd like to attend Stanford after she graduates from high school two years and $30 million from now.

Wie already has a professional image consultant, and the William Morris Agency has taken her on as a client. It's likely she will never know a time in her life when she is not famous. I see two problems: Wie doesn't win adult tournaments. She's won one, the 2003 Women's Amateur Public Links. That's it. She seems to play worse as tournaments go on, rather than better. And, two: there's a teenager in there somewhere. Mix that with the discovery of sex, too much money, too much fame, and those parents...

And then there is Paula Creamer, 19 years old, 2005 Rookie of the Year. Paula's had a good, albeit quiet year compared to Wie. She graduated from Pendleton High School in May and is second on the ADT money list, having earned $1,467,504 since January 1.

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