Are sponsor's spots turning into a sideshow?

Updated: January 13, 2004, 6:28 PM ET
Associated Press

HONOLULU -- Michelle Wie and Dean Wilson posed side by side Tuesday morning on the practice range at Waialae Country Club to see who was taller.

Michelle Wie

There's no question who's bigger.

Wie, a ninth grader at Punahou School, is at the Sony Open on a sponsor's exemption. At 14, she is believed to be the youngest player to compete on the PGA Tour.

Wilson, a 12-year veteran who is one of the best players to ever come out of Hawaii, never got an exemption to his hometown event. Despite six victories on the Japanese tour, qualifying for four majors and a World Golf Championship, he always had to go through Monday qualifying if he wanted a tee time in the Sony Open.

And that's OK with him.

''The sponsors are putting up the money,'' Wilson said. ''They need players to get people to turn on the TV and, obviously, Michelle is a perfect choice. I hate to say it, but no one turns on the TV to watch me play.''

The Sony Open, like most open events on the PGA Tour, is allowed eight exemptions. Four must go to proven players who have at least made it through Q-school. The others can go to whomever a sponsor chooses.

Can it turn into a sideshow?

No more than when former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien played in the 1992 Kemper Open. He shot 80-91 and finished last, 13 shots behind the guy who was next-to-last.

The latest craze seems to be women: Wie is the seventh to compete against men worldwide since Annika Sorenstam missed the cut at Colonial, and the third to play on the PGA Tour.

The interest won't be nearly as high as it was for Sorenstam, the first woman in 58 years on the PGA Tour.

When the Big Wiesy teed it up Tuesday with the Big Easy -- defending champion Ernie Els -- only 27 people were standing behind the 11th tee as the sun rose over the Pacific. The fairways were lined from tee-to-green when Sorenstam played a practice round at Colonial with Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik.

In many respects, however, Wie is in a league of her own.

Her appeal is as much about her potential as her gender. Even if she misses the cut this week, there may be other PGA Tour events that offer her an exemption, especially in the fall when the fields are weak and attention turns to football.

''I wouldn't be particularly surprised if any tournament offered her an exemption,'' PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. ''What I would be surprised about is if it's a trend. I don't see this developing to be a trend. However, if she becomes competitive ... that could change.''

Until that happens -- if that happens -- more appearances by Wie on the PGA Tour could raise questions about whether sponsor exemptions are being spent wisely.

Is it all about tickets and TV ratings?

If sponsors fail to weigh ability against publicity, players might not welcome the Wies of the world much longer.

Exemptions usually go to past champions who need a break or young players on the rise, fresh out of college and looking to get some experience.

Tiger Woods had no trouble lining them up when he won his third straight U.S. Amateur. Charles Howell III, an NCAA champion, survived on sponsors' exemptions until he made enough money to get his card.

''You should have ambition and drive to play the PGA Tour,'' Howell said.

Finchem said it was possible for players to stop playing at tournaments that stoop to any level for the sake of publicity. Sponsors' exemptions have been debated for years for that very reason.

''I think players will continue to take the view that there are an awful lot of very good players in the world who want an opportunity -- and are competitive,'' Finchem said. ''And when they're passed over by individuals who aren't, it can create strong feelings.''

Finchem defined ''competitive'' as someone capable of being an exempt player at some point.

''That's different than saying an individual who might make a cut sometime,'' he said.

Ask yourself this question while watching Wie in the Sony Open: Does she have the potential to some day be a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour?

That's what John Riegger wanted to know about Sorenstam.

After Sorenstam missed the cut at Colonial, she repeatedly said her place was on the LPGA Tour. When pressed how she thought she would do playing a full PGA Tour schedule, she said she believed she could finish in the top 100 on the money list if she played 30 times and could pick the right courses.

Riegger, a 20-year veteran who has never finished higher than 140th on the money list, was so offended by that comment that he challenged Sorenstam to an 18-hole match for $1 million (it never happened).

Howell was 17 when he took a sponsor's exemption at the Buick Challenge. He shot 80-75 and tied for last.

''My goal was to one day play on the PGA Tour,'' Howell said. ''From what I hear of Michelle, that's her goal, too. As good as I think she is, I don't see why she shouldn't play.

''And as much interest as she generates, she'll probably be here again.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press