Turning pro merely a formality for Wie
So Michelle Wie has turned pro at the tender age of 15.
What took so long?
Here's a girl who spoke to reporters about one day beating Tiger Woods when she was 9 years old. She spoke publicly about playing Augusta National well before she got braces. And she unabashedly admitted to planning careers on both the PGA and LPGA Tours while most of her critics wondered whether she should be still on the junior circuit. When reached by phone Tuesday in Honolulu, Michelle's father, B.J., confessed that this decision was made a long time ago. "Turning pro at age 16 was one of multiple scenarios that we've been evaluating," he said. "The reason we did this a few days early [before her 16th birthday next Tuesday] is because we didn't want to interfere with the Samsung [World Championship]."
Say what you want about the Wie family, but don't accuse them of putting things off. Asked whether Michelle will have to bring homework on her trip to California next week, B.J. said plainly: "Usually she does it before she leaves."
So no one should raise an eyebrow at this decision any more than anyone clucked when Freddy Adu, Michael Phelps, Sidney Crosby, Maria Sharapova or even Dakota Fanning "turned pro" as teens (or younger). Where was the outcry when those phenoms made their leap? Wie's decision might have a huge effect on the golf world -- and the sports world -- but the meaning of turning pro has diminished nearly to the point of irrelevance, unless you play basketball or football.
In a way, Wie turned pro years ago. She's already played in several majors, starting at age 13. She's faced hard questions from fans and media and even some hard criticism from LPGA vets. She's had cameras on her almost non-stop, including this week, when she'll be a 15-year-old girl on the cover of Fortune. No, she's never putted for dough technically, but she always knew future sponsorships and exemptions rode on every swing. She wanted it that way.
"I knew from the moment I first picked up a golf club that I wanted to play for my whole life," Wie said at a press conference in her native Honolulu, flanked by representatives from Nike and Sony. "I'm so excited, I didn't see any cons [to turning pro]."
Wie already acts like a pro, spending two-and-a-half hours on most weekdays at one of three Honolulu courses. On weekends, she's at the course for six hours per day. On Tuesdays, she gets a massage (plus manicure/pedicure). She has a strength trainer who sends her workouts, a sports psychologist with whom she speaks by phone every week, and a nutritionist who tells her what to eat and what to avoid.
This is in addition to the pros at David Leadbetter Academy, who work with her on adding 10 percent more distance to her swing. "Right now her carry distance is 260," says her dad, B.J. "To compete in the PGA Tour, she has to have at least 285 -- at least."
Does that sound like an amateur's life?
Of course some bristle that Wie does not truly have a life of her own, and that she will spend her Sweet 16 next week not at GameWorks with giggly friends (or on MTV having a diva moment) but in a hotel in Palm Desert, Calif., preparing for the Samsung World Championship. But if Wie is going to live to regret her lost childhood, that ship has already sailed. She has already spent her summers on the course instead of at camp, and her weekends laying up on grass instead of laying out on sand.
Her father has lost sleep over this decision, but more about whether he's made the right deal than about whether his daughter has jettisoned her youth. Waiting until age 20 to turn pro -- as Tiger did -- will not alter Michelle's golf routine or her heady golf goals. She wants to play against the men whether it's for million-dollar purses or a five-dollar Nassau. And by the way, among her friends in Oahu is a girl named Meg, who happens to model on the side. Meg's parents probably don't think she's too young to be earning a lot of money.
Ah, but then there's the issue of winning. Like Danica Patrick, Wie gets accused of not knowing how to close the deal. Tiger Woods owned six USGA titles when he turned pro, compared to Wie's one. But that jab would have kept coming at Wie even if she kept the "A" after her name in tournaments.
Look at Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest winner of our generation. He was every bit as "clutch" as an amateur in college as he is now. Turning pro didn't change his ability to handle pressure any more than it turned Kwame Brown from world-beater into misfit. Michael Jordan and Gatorade ask "Is it in you?" but even a Gatorade sponsorship won't change the answer to that question. And in Wie's case, we don't know any better today than we did yesterday.
Go ahead and place your bets, because Nike and Sony just did. And Michelle placed hers years ago.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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