Wie can learn plenty from Sharapova

9/18/2006 - Golf

It was interesting -- and good networking by Nike and IMG -- to see Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open on Sunday, cap on backward, watching Roger Federer win his ninth Grand Slam title. Afterward, Federer said Woods is maybe the only other person in this world who can relate to that zone. "That's something that I haven't felt before, you know," Federer said. "A guy who knows how it feels to feel invincible at times."

It was also interesting to see Maria Sharapova win the women's draw in New York, for her second Grand Slam title. Sharapova might have entered this country as a Russian ingenue, but she has worked her talent and looks to become the most photographed and successfully marketed diva in the sports world. Yes, she's so pretty, but she can tear apart a tennis ball, too. Now she's smiling all the way to a new level of fame and fortune.

Sharapova never felt the need to compete against Federer or Andy Roddick to become a better women's tennis player. She didn't need to cross over for Tag Heuer, Canon, Motorola, Prince, Nike and Colgate-Palmolive to throw a collective $20 million at her before winning in New York, where she connected with the fans and even further with corporate America. She's got the look, but she's also got the game -- and the buzz.

Michelle Wie has the look too, and she has the golf game to replicate Sharapova's success. But to reach the level of Federer, Woods or Sharapova, she needs to take a step back and reassess the game plan and the priorities. The buzz created by playing men's golf ought to give way to a concerted effort to dominate on the LPGA Tour and win majors. Forget the cut she made in South Korea. Where it counts, Wie is 14-over-par in her two PGA Tour appearances in 2006, with a 7,500-yard golf course awaiting this week at Nemacolin Woodlands, south of Pittsburgh. Based on the scores she's posted before the 84 Lumber Classic, it's starting to look like child abuse.

In the Alps last week, Wie looked lost. In the heartland of America two months ago, she looked physically and emotionally broken, withdrawing from the John Deere Classic from "heat exhaustion." Now there is heavy skepticism following her, more than ever before. After missing the cut at the Sony Open in January, the respected voices of Mike Weir and Olin Browne questioned the validity of the exemptions being doled out to Wie. More tour players will be popping off this week in Pennsylvania, some less diplomatic.

You just hate to see Wie get caught up in this, but it is the perfect storm. Title sponsors from B-list events keep calling Ross Berlin of her management agency. Wie's contracts kick in the big bucks when she plays in a certain amount of men's tournaments. Throw in a full summer of LPGA events, the stress of U.S. Open qualifying, fashion shoots in New York, and it's reached a breaking point. To quote a friend, Randall Mell of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, "What was inspirational is now delusional."

The questions you have to ask:
• Is Wie playing men's golf to raise the level of her game on the women's tour?
• Is she playing men's golf because that's where the money is?
• Is she playing men's golf because that's where she believes she'll be playing someday -- or is that just part of the marketing strategy?

Before the Omega European Masters, Wie said it was "totally possible" that she could one day make a Ryder Cup team. After going 15-over in two laps around one of the easiest courses on the European Tour, she was saying, "It felt like I wasn't even playing golf today."

Sharapova went through her learning curve, too. But she won Wimbledon at 17 and is now the queen of women's tennis. Can Wie become the queen of women's golf? That seems like a lower priority in the Wie Camp, but Bo, B.J. and Michelle must look at the popularity of the women's U.S. Open tennis champ -- and the joy and intensity with which she played at Flushing Meadow -- as a model.

Behind the scenes, Sharapova's father might be as ruthless and cunning as Richard Williams (Venus and Serena's dad), but you can't fake the look on Maria's face as she ran through the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium after taking out Justine Henin-Hardenne. The skeptics say it was another in a series of Canon moments for Sharapova, but it looked to me like a genuine show of emotion by a 19-year-old girl looking for her dad. You have to remember, as we uncomfortably watch Wie scrape her chin playing men's tournament golf, she's still a teenager. And teenagers either bounce back easily, or in some cases, get scarred for life.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine