At a press conference two years ago, Michelle Wie, then 14, answered banal questions about missed putts with the ease of a seasoned veteran. Then a reporter from a Los Angeles newspaper abruptly changed the mood and the subject and, for a moment, pushed her off her game. He asked for a reaction to the beheading of Kim Sun-il, a South Korean hostage in Iraq. After pausing, she expressed a few words of grief and said: ‘I’m not really up on politics. I’m just a golfer.’
Hardly. As anyone who has followed the phenomenon of Michelle Wie knows, a golfer is only one of the many roles that she so capably plays. She is also a glass ceiling-crashing trailblazer, a multimillion-dollar marketing machine, a glamorous cover girl and either the future of women’s golf or, if we are to believe her critics, an empress with no clothes. She also might be the only teenage girl on the planet whose opinion on global terrorism is sought by the press corps. So why are we paying so much attention to 16-year-old Wie?
A condensed version goes like this: she took her first golf swing at the age of four and it was apparent right away that this bubbly Korean-American girl was something special, combining a graceful swing, remarkable power and a ferociously competitive streak. By the age of 10, she had shot a 64 and become the youngest ever qualifier for match play at the US Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. Four years later, as the only woman trying to qualify for the Sony Open, a PGA event in Hawaii, she beat the reigning Open and US Open champions, but missed the cut by one stroke. Before long, she earned praise from top players such as Fred Couples, who called her powerful swing, which drove balls 300 yards, ‘the scariest thing you’ve ever seen’. Others compared her to Mozart, Michael Jordan and, inevitably, Tiger Woods. When she announced in October that she was going professional, it was a foregone conclusion that Wie was on the verge of superstardom.
There was only one problem: she hadn’t won much of anything.
Before Wie came along, few people outside a small circle of fans were paying much attention to woman’s golf. Now young girls who know more about Paris Hilton’s latest boyfriend or the travails of Kate Moss than about Annika Sorenstam are following Wie around the golf courses of the world. When she played against men at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois, in July, takings for the tournament rose by 40% and television ratings increased by more than 50% from the previous year. The demand was so dramatic that some American networks changed their schedules to guarantee they wouldn’t miss Wie’s tee times.
So how did it happen? How did a 16-year-old Hawaiian girl without a significant victory to her name become so popular and so wealthy so quickly? Well, for a start, she looks the part. At six feet tall with a toothy, natural smile, Wie has a face made for a cereal box. And when she swings a club, her long legs and willowy body have the casual elegance of a movie star.
Wie was born in America, but during a time when golf is restlessly reinventing itself as a younger, more global game her middle-class Asian heritage encourages a belief that this is a sport for more than just middle-aged white members of exclusive clubs. She speaks Korean, English, Japanese and is in the process of learning Mandarin – all of which make her attractive to the game’s huge and increasing Asian audience.
It was certainly no accident that her second tournament as a professional was the Casio World Open in Japan, where she became only the second female golfer to compete against men in Japan. She is so famous in her parents’ homeland that a South Korean man whose last name was Wie recently raised $14-million from 970 investors for his shoe sterilisation business by claiming (falsely) that he was a close relative of the golfer. He promised she would help with promotion. Think of that: Wie could even make shoe sterilisation sound lucrative. Not surprisingly, the largest television rights revenue the LPGA receives is from Korea.
Yet what really makes Wie special is not what she looks like or where she is from, but what she represents. From a very early age, her singular goal was not only to win tournaments. It was to break into the boys’ club.
There has long been a feeling that golf is one game in which the best women could take on the men. In May 2003, Annika Sorenstam became the first female to play on the PGA Tour since 1945. But, unlike Wie, she has no desire to compete regularly against men. And the men’s tours are quickly realising the publicity opportunities of pitting the sexes against each other. On the day Wie became a professional, for instance, the Royal and Ancient announced that women would be eligible to qualify for the 2006 Open.
Wie was born in 1989 and grew up in Honolulu, the only child of South Korean immigrants. Her father, BJ, is a professor in transportation studies at the University of Hawaii, and her mother, Bo, used to be an estate agent. Their main preoccupation and something they have performed with a laser-beam-like focus has been the creation of a golf superstar. As a toddler, Michelle was introduced to football, softball and tennis before concentrating on the one sport at which she particularly excelled – golf. Wie practised for four hours each weekday and for seven hours at weekends while also doing well at school.
There was never any doubt what this young girl wanted to be when she grew up. She may, like others of her age, listen to Coldplay and like Jim Carrey movies, but her room was decorated with posters of Tiger Woods and she spoke incessantly about golf. And then, before she reached puberty, she declared that her consuming ambition was to play in The Masters.
For the press conference at which she announced she was turning professional, Wie was surrounded, naturally enough, by sombre-suited businessmen from her main sponsors Nike and Sony. Like a Hollywood actress, she has an entourage of handlers to help in every aspect of her career: image consultants, marketeers, psychologists, coaches. Her parents signed up an agent, Ross Berlin, from the William Morris Agency, a Hollywood firm better known for representing movie stars than golfers.
Wie has, at 16, become a major corporate enterprise. But, already, there is concern about what she does on the golf course rather than off it. So how good is she? Few doubt her talent. She hits the ball easily as well as many leading male golfers and she will only become stronger with age and experience. What concerns her most vociferous critics is the mental side of her game, her poise when putting and the inconsistency that prevents her from completing four rounds without making too many damaging mistakes.
Only time will tell, of course, whether or not Wie lives up to the hype. But her position raises the question of whether the rapid celebration by the media and corporate sponsors of very young athletes is good for sport. Corporate advertisers love to promote attractive, young and talented people, but what’s good for selling merchandise isn’t the same thing as what’s good for a growing and developing athlete (just ask tennis player Anna Kournikova). Every once in a while there is a LeBron James or a Wayne Rooney, but for every James and Rooney, there are innumerable athletes who are pushed too fast and too early. The hype and expectation destroys them.
Three weeks after declaring her intention to become professional, Wie held a carefully staged press conference in Las Vegas with former President Bill Clinton, during which she announced that she was donating half a million dollars to the Bush-Clinton Hurricane Katrina relief fund. Later, she and Clinton played golf together. ‘I saw clips of it,’ she said about the disaster in New Orleans, ‘and I really wanted to help out.’
Hers was a generous gesture, to be sure, but it also happened to be a wonderful public-relations exercise: Wie may never have won a significant tournament but she has earned more than $10-million from sponsorship deals and intends to spend some of her fortune with an eye to the public good. She understands, has probably long understood, that, these days, to stand out and really be noticed, just being a golfer isn’t nearly enough.