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Please, don't judge Wie's career too quickly

10/5/2005

I put the "She's no Tiger Woods" pool at about six months. Michelle Wie will be granted perhaps that long to turn every future-casting projection of her talent into a beautiful, fully realized thing.

And if she isn't whole by then? Well, obviously: Burned at the stake.

Wie is turning pro. She should turn pro. It's the right move for a young woman who already possesses the skill set -- not the experience, mind you, but the skill set -- to compete with the world's greatest female golfers. (She's also gonna get stinking rich, but that's an ogle for another paragraph.) Given time, you might even be inspired to remove the gender barrier to her promise altogether.

Of course, that's the catch: time. And it's too bad, isn't it? On the large scale of public opinion, the lonely downside to all this breakaway good news is that Wie won't be given anywhere near the time she'll need to get her game together. For her sake, here's hoping she's great out of the gate.

When Annika Sorenstam became Annika Sorenstam, winning the U.S. Women's Open in her second full year as a pro, she was closing in on her 25th birthday. I'd like to see Wie's game when she's 25, with almost a decade of experience on the pro golf tour(s) and the inevitable additions to her bag of tricks that would accompany so much time out there on the course.

But Wie isn't going to operate on the standard timetable -- and, for the record, Sorenstam spent those earlier years, the ones before age 23 or so, sharpening her game on the amateur circuits. Whereas Annika went from high school to college and only then pondered the professional's life, Michelle already knows what she wants and when.

Wie never made any secret of that desire, to find the greatest challenge available to her as quickly as possible. It is perhaps the most crucial decision of her athletic life. It'll pay incredible dividends in the long run. Alas, such a projection presumes a long run.

In the interim, Wie had better brace for the reality, which is that she is going to be held to a standard unlike any golfer in the modern history of the sport not named Woods. That may or may not be fair, but it sure is life.

It's hard to imagine a more perfect storm of scrutiny than the one facing Wie. She's a Tiger-like blend of promise, magnetism, ethnicity (a Korean-American from Hawaii) and glamour. She's statuesque, good-looking, can drive a ball nearly 300 yards. She's worth $8 million a year just walking out the door. Sufficient bling funding will not be an issue.

But she's no Tiger Woods, because nobody ever could be. Not even Tiger, as it turns out.

Woods became Woods over a couple of years. It seems almost impossible to imagine right now, what with the golf world ready to pronounce an immediate judgment on whether Wie is making the mistake of her life coming out too soon (an understandable, but in this case, pointless concern) or is poised to take over the sport as a global phenomenon (no way in the world, given that she's still learning how to close out a lead).

Tiger had the massive breakout in 1997, winning The Masters in a rout in his first try as a professional, winning three other Tour stops, and it was only then that the mania hit full force. Oh, he'd already become wildly popular; there was never a question of that. Woods was the right golfer at the right time. But it wasn't until the spring and summer of '97 that the world's expectations of him just jumped the boundaries of reason and took off into the stratosphere.

That he ultimately exceeded them may be less material to this conversation than the fact that Woods won exactly one time on the PGA the following year, 1998. Get that? The great Woods, one PGA Tour victory.

Michelle Wie is no Woods because they made only one of him, which sure isn't the same as saying Wie cannot become something incredibly special in golf. If I had to bet, I'd bet that it won't happen when she's 16. You wonder if there's anyone involved who possesses the patience to wait until she's at least 20 -- the year Tiger turned pro -- before passing final judgment.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.