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Are sponsor's spots turning into a sideshow?

1/13/2004

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.

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.''