Potential for controversy follows Wie to Open

Michelle Wie had a difficult experience last year at the U.S. Women's Open and still faces plenty of jealousy.

Updated: July 1, 2004, 2:28 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. -- One year after her first exposure to jealousy on the links, Michelle Wie returns to the U.S. Women's Open and ... more jealousy.

One year after deciding to take a break from serving as his daughter's caddy because of etiquette lapses, B.J. Wie returns to the U.S. Open and ... will handle his daughter's clubs.

Michelle Wie is a year older, and a year more mature, but the game has not grown up. Resentment of her star status still abounds. And because she is still an amateur, Wie's father can hardly afford to hire a caddy for four days and no chance of shared prize money. The LPGA is still caught between past and future -- between old ways and a new era -- and must somehow figure out whether to treat Wie as a teen or a teen prodigy.

Michelle Wie
Michelle Wie walks with David Leadbetter, who has helped her with her swing.
Last year at the U.S. Open, Wie was dressed down by LPGA tour vet Danielle Ammaccapane during the first round at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon. "I've never been so humiliated in my whole life," Wie said at the time. B.J. Wie falsely accused Ammaccapane of bumping his daughter, sought and received extra security for his daughter, then decided to step outside the ropeline for future events. The controversy completely obliterated the fact that Wie became the youngest player ever to make the cut at the Open.

Now, almost exactly a year later, more tour vets are complaining about Wie returning to the Open via exemption.

"Everybody should earn their way to the Open," said Juli Inkster, a two-time Open champion. "It's an experience everybody should go through. You've got to learn how to qualify for things."

Fair enough, except not many sports fans out there will be flipping through channels this weekend and remarking, "Hey, Juli Inkster's on."

And, would Juli Inkster, age 14, turn down a chance to play at the U.S. Open? Probably not.

What if Mozart, age 5, hopped up on stage with Michelle Branch? Everyone in the audience would want to see the kid jam, but Branch has gotta make a living. You can't kick Mozart off the stage -- Imagine the gate if they toured together! Imagine the shame if the kid took his act somewhere else! -- but leaving him on stage means the professional will be completely upstaged.

Consider the anonymous remarks from a highly-placed source in athlete marketing and endorsement, commenting on what kind of money Wie would be worth if she should turn pro this year:

"She likely will not get Tiger money since her time on the PGA will be limited and the LPGA is still a minor league of sorts. She should still command more than any woman has ever made on the LPGA Tour. Ballpark from a major endorser is $5 million a year with incentives. With that said, her potential to collect from a variety of companies is strong. Off-course endorsement could bank her $15-$20 million a year in her early years with the potential increasing as she proves herself."

Asked about those figures earlier his year, B.J. declined comment and reiterated that Michelle has no plans to turn pro any time soon.

Sorry, but Ms. Ammaccapane and Mrs. Inkster aren't worth that much -- combined. So although they both deserve respect for their accomplishments, they get a deaf ear for their complaining. Wie might not be the only great teen playing this weekend, but she's the only teen who can wrestle the "minor league" label off the women's tour. If Tiger Woods never wins another major, fans will still watch the PGA. But if Michelle Wie never plays another major, how many fans will bail out on the LPGA?

That said, Wie is still only 14. Last year's incident scarred her emotionally and shook her game. After placing ninth in last year's first major and winning the U.S. Publinx title, Wie stumbled after the Open. "Looking back to 2003," B.J. Wie said earlier this year, "mentally both Michelle and I were affected by the incident. Her confidence was down. And the record shows her performance was worse. She struggled with her swing."

Only a lesson with David Ledbetter late last fall helped Wie recover her confidence. She shined at the Sony Open in January, playing in the familiar trade winds of her home state of Hawaii and getting lessons from unthreatened PGA players like Ernie Els. Then, playing with supportive (and, in some cases, awestruck) peers, she led the U.S. to a Curtis Cup win. But last week, as she tried to defend her Publinx crown, Wie's putter failed and she burst into tears after the match.

When Wie plays well, and competitors play nice, the LPGA has a gem. When she falters, or competitors get catty, the LPGA has a problem. Allowing her to earn even a limited amount of prize money or endorsements -- making another exception -- will open the floodgates for dozens or even hundreds of South Korean WannaWies. It might also put pressure on Wie to save her family some money and earn her place on tour. But making no change would mean more caddying for B.J. and more potential for controversy.

Lost in all of this is the fact that Wie is still getting better. She has missed only one cut in 10 LPGA appearances, and her worst finish this year is 19th. She would have earned well over $100,000 already this year if rules permitted. Her long game is vastly improved from her final group appearance in last year's first major; what if that putter comes around?

"All of this could change," says the marketing source, "if she wins a major this year."

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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