April 1, 2009

Michelle Wie Needs To Show Us Something This Week


As it stands now, Michelle Wie's career more closely resembles Ty Tryon's than Tiger Woods.

Tryon, you might recall, was the youngest golfer to ever make it through PGA Q-School at the age of 17. He then joined the Tour, was given million-a-year endorsement deals with Callaway Golf and Target, but he never lived up to his hype as the Next Big Thing. These days, Tryon can be found playing the mini-tours, and he has yet to find his mojo and live up to the expectations he had eight years ago.

Michelle Wie, on the other hand, has never won a 72-hole tournament at any level, anywhere. Her biggest win to date came in 2002 in the Women's Division of the Hawai'i State Open, a three round affair where she won over Cindy Rarick. With all due respect to Ms. Rarick, that's not a win over Lorena Ochoa or Christie Kerr.

Somehow, however, Wie is the Next Great Hope of the LPGA. As Dan Bickley wrote in the Arizona Sun on March 27th, the LPGA's idea of its future seems to hinge on the future of their young but extremely under-accomplished star:

[A]s the 2009 golf season gets rolling, this much remains true: Wie is the tour's best hope for relevancy. And she may be more important to the future of the LPGA than Woods is for the men's game.

"For sure, it is a new beginning," Wie said. "I'm really excited for this summer to come, this spring and summer. I'm just very excited."

Wie is still a spectacle. That hasn't changed, either. Despite her early tee time on Friday, her gallery bulged to around 500 people in the second round of the J Golf Phonoenix LPGA National. She was the only one drawing a serious crowd, and the only one with a Phoenix police officer escorting her group down the fairway.

The simple question is: why? After all, the LPGA has Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis, Christie Kerr, an entire contingent of incredibly talented international players such as Jeong Jang, and others. But it's Wie or bust, or so it seems.

Wie was a young phenom, no doubt, but she never has backed up her considerable golf skills with wins where they count the most: the LPGA, the USGA, or even the Futures Tour. And as any fan of Tiger Woods will tell you, the only thing that really counts in tournament golf are wins. And the only thing that make any professional golfer great are wins in major tournaments.

Ask Rory Macelroy, who has won on the European Tour at the tender age of 18. He too is considered a phenomenon, and is Europe's best hope for its next great golfer. Thing is, Rory has hoisted a trophy, and a has a win on the big stage to his name. While his C.V. is far from distinguished at this stage, since Macelroy has yet to prove he can contend and even win a major, he has proven that at least some of the hyperbole that surrounded him as a youngster was on the mark. Wie, on the other hand, has yet to live up to hers -- and questions still remain if she ever will.

As the LPGA's first major of the year prepares to tee off tomorrow, it will be well worth watching Michelle Wie and observing how she plays. If she is to truly fulfill the LPGA's hope of having its own superstar a la Tiger, she will need to not only make the cut but also show that she can compete in the upper echelons of the women's game. If she doesn't, she'll continue to resemble Ty Tryon, pressure will continue to mount upon her, and the LPGA may soon be searching for someone else to raise its profile.

Hopefully for Wie, good things will happen soon, because the window of opportunity won't last forever.

image: Keith Allison, on Flickr

2 comments:

  1. Great Post!

    Why Wie? It's a question that's being asked, and I've heard a number of responses: She's got an intangible "star quality"...she was a teen phenom...her parents got her great sponsors and publicity... I've heard all of those things and each has an small element of truth to it. But I think what it comes down to - as so many things do in golf - is a Male/Female issue.

    The LPGA (like all women's sports) still counts largely on a male audience and fan base. Women simply don't watch/follow golf, attend golf tournaments or consume golf media in significant enough numbers to move the needle or have any influence on which player will be popular or talked about or perceived as a star.

    Like it or not the LPGAs core audience is male, and I would argue that's why the LPGA "stars" - the most popular and buzzworthy players - aren't the best golfers.

    It's why Natalie Gulbis gets more ink than Lorena Ochoa...and why Anna Rawson gets more buzz than Yani Tseng.

    And as for Michelle Wie, not only does she have the aesthetic attributes of "Natal-Anna", she's also got an even stronger hold on the collective male golf watcher's psyche: because she actually got right onto their playing field...numerous times...and played (or at least attempted to qualify) right alongside them!

    This - as the reason for Michelle Wie's draw, and seemingly disproportionate value to the LPGA tour - should never be underestimated.

    The fact that Ms. Wie did what she did, and kept doing it in the face of growing criticism, put her squarely in front of that important male golf audience and created such a visceral reaction, that it compelled legions of male golf watchers... fans and occsional followers alike...to watch LPGA golf. And we all know that generally males - because of their basic maleness - don't care much for women's golf, because it lacks the possibility of a 400 yd drive.

    So Michelle's defiant and controversial quest to play with the men - and her continued hints that she'll do it again -has many more Men watching the LPGA. While a certain number would turn up to see beautiful champions like Cristie Kerr or Paula Creamer, it's nothing near the number that turn out for the girl who's "ready to mix it up with them".

    I have no doubt that if women began to watch and follow LPGA golf in the numbers men do, it would be a different story. The popularity and media coverage of a particular golfer would more closely correspond to their golf game and rank, as it does for the PGA players. But for now it is what it is and for now the tour... and it's players... are right pin their hopes on the fascinating Ms. Wie.

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