Free Michelle Wie

I wrote this in October 2005: “The thing about the future is, nobody knows what will happen. So, we don’t know what will happen to Michelle Wie. Still, not knowing never stopped anyone from making a bet. Nike and Sony are betting $10 million that Michelle Wie will be the next Tiger Woods.”

There is a reason — make that, reasons, why two greedy corporations spit up 10 million bucks a year to a child. Michelle Wie, at 10, qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. At 12, she qualified for an LPGA tournament. At 13, she became the youngest player to make the cut in an LPGA major (Kraft Nabisco Championship), finishing ninth. Three months later she wins the Women’s Amateur Public Links tournament. At 14, she plays her first tournament on the (men’s) PGA Tour (Sony Open) and missed the cut by one stroke. Two months later she’s back at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and finishes fourth. At 15, she places second in the LPGA Championship, then flies to France, ties for second in the Evian Masters, then onto the Women’s British Open and a third-place tie.

The biggest jackpot in sports is Tiger Woods, and Michelle looked like someone who could prosper at his altitude. She can drive the ball like Tiger Woods — 300 yards. She’s attractive. She’s a girl. If Wie could dominate women’s golf and do well on the men’s tour, she could out-earn Tiger. People and businesses that make their money living off athletes drooled. And then drooled some more.

So, how has she done since October 2005? Well, Wie became a professional golfer on October 5, turned 16 on October 11, started her first LPGA tournament as a pro on October 13 (Samsung World Championship), and finished fourth. Pretty damn good. And then the first leaf dropped. Wie was disqualified for signing a bogus scorecard. A sportswriter ratted her out for an illegal drop during the third round. Weird. She’s too famous to cheat; too many eyes on her.

Her second professional tournament was on the (men’s) Japan Golf Tour (Casio World Open). Didn’t make the cut. Third pro start, January 2006, the (men’s) PGA Tour, Sony Open, missed the cut. But, so what, the next month, February 2006, Wie is ranked third in the world by Rolex World Golf Rankings.

Wie is not a member of the LPGA. There are considerable benefits to going solo if you’re Michelle Wie. She can only play in six LPGA tournaments a year, and she must get a sponsor’s exception to play in those, but sponsors are ramming in the front door to offer Michelle exceptions. As a solo, Wie doesn’t have to play her way into LPGA tournaments; she can pick and choose her events and pocket whatever show-up money she can hustle. Wie can play in every non-LPGA event she cares to enter (the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open are non-LPGA events). Then, there is the Asian Tour, European Tour, Japan Golf Tour, Canadian Tour, lots of women’s pro-golf tours out there.

In March of 2006, Wie is back at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, ties for third place. In May, she plays the SK Telecom Open, a men’s tournament in South Korea. The tournament paid out $600,000 in prize money, Wie gets $700,000 in appearance fees. In June, Wie tied for fifth in the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and then tied for third in the U.S. Women’s Open, finishing two strokes off the lead.

So far, so groovy. But then, in July, another leaf drops. Wie plays in the (men’s) PGA John Deere Classic. After one complete round and nine holes of a second round, Wie is eight over par and ten shots over what is thought to be the cut number. She withdrew from the tournament, citing heat exhaustion.

It happens.

Two weeks later, Wie tied for second at the Evian Masters and then finished tied for 26th at the Women’s British Open. In September, she competed in the (men’s) Omega European Masters and finished last among 156 competitors, 15 strokes over par after two rounds.

A week later she competed in the (men’s) PGA Tour at the 84 Lumber Classic, finished 14 over par after two rounds, 23 strokes behind the leaders, nailing down last place. November 2006, and it’s the (men’s) Japan Golf Tour, Casio World Open again. Wie claimed last place among professional golfers.

2007 was worse. Here are the headlines: Missed cut, withdrew, 84th place, withdrew, 69th place, missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, and finished 19th out of 20 players.

On the happy side of the street, Forbes ranked Wie as the fourth-highest moneymaker under the age of 25, reporting that she makes $19 million a year.

And then it gets interesting. Part II next week.

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