Wie might be better off without free lunch

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2004

The golf was brawny, business was brisk, and the tournament made for good TV all four days, even if you occasionally had to turn down the sound.

All things considered, it sure was exciting watching Michelle Wie miss another cut.

Last week marked the third time it happened in as many tries against the men one on a minor league tour, one on the Canadian, and the latest against the PGA's big boys at the Sony Open. But don't fret if you were too busy prepping for the NFL's weekend exams to tune in. Chances are you'll get to see Wie do it again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

The 14-year-old Wie is hardly a novelty. She already hits her driver as far as the men, and as Wie proved repeatedly down the stretch toward a second-round 68 that still left her one stroke on the wrong side of the cut line she's got game.

But as another of those slogans marketers love to toss around reminds us, she's also got next. And probably a few more tournaments after that.

Next could be at the St. Jude Classic in May, the Booz Allen Classic in June or any of the PGA Tour's other second-tier ''classics,'' almost anywhere the timing is right and the promoters are sharp enough to slip Wie into the field.

And just imagine the publicity when forget about if she finally does make a cut. Her autobiography will be in the bookstores that weekend, and the lucky title sponsor's CEO will wind up with a business school named in his honor.

If all this sounds like we're getting ahead of ourselves, well, her father, college professor B.J. Wie, wouldn't want it any other way. Never mind that Michelle has yet to beat the best players her own age, male or female. B.J. intends to continue throwing her in against the PGA and LPGA pros when the right opportunity presents itself, ''so she can learn better,'' and he could turn out to be right.

Richard Williams had daughters Venus and Serena shun the junior circuit and after taking the road less traveled, they turned women's tennis upside down. Wie's daughter could do the same to women's and even men's golf, someday.

But mixing it up with the pros a few times along the way is almost certain to take her down a rockier path. The resentment from the pros isn't there yet, but at the rate Wie is gobbling up free lunches, it won't be long in coming.

No sooner had the door on the Sony closed than another swung open. Michael Myers, senior vice president of Kemper Sports, which runs the Booz Allen tournament, announced an invitation with Michelle's name on it was going into the mail.

Reached at home in Hawaii, B.J. Wie made a point of saying no one had actually contacted him and, besides, the timing was awkward. That tournament takes place the same weekend as the U.S. Amateur Public Links, which Wie won last year en route to becoming the youngest champion of a USGA tournament for adults.

B.J. said she intends to defend that title, and when asked about other prospective offers, he added: ''We wouldn't rush into anything. The PGA Tour has the best players in the world. And she's still young.''

Of course, that won't stop Wie from taking advantage of all six of the sponsor exemptions the LPGA Tour has already extended this year for the second straight year or any other tournament that fits her schedule and her handlers' ideas about her education.

The pros Wie played alongside at the Sony were generally happy to have her along, and what concerns they expressed had to do with her age, not her gender. Tournament officials loved the buzz she brought, and Sony couldn't have been happier with the attention. Even the folks at ESPN got some additional mileage out of Wie's appearance; undaunted that she missed the cut, they promoted her to instant ''analyst'' and smuggled her onto the course for the third round in a headset.

Wie didn't try to match Anna Kournikova's madcap routines at the last U.S. Open tennis tournament, thankfully. But you didn't have to listen long, either, to be reminded why the saying ''kids should be seen and not heard'' became popular in the first place. She was repetitive, like, to a fault.

How many more times the same scene plays out is anyone's guess. Sponsors handing out exemptions can be a touchy subject, since they pay a big share of the bills. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem keeps assuring everyone this isn't a trend, but concedes in the next breath, ''However, if she becomes competitive ... that could change.''

Already, some players are grousing that Wie hasn't had to qualify to get a spot in the field, considering how tough it is holding onto their playing privileges. Others nervously laugh about where sponsors will turn next to spice up their tournaments.

A joke already making the rounds goes: ''Wait until they find out that Cocoa the gorilla can hold a golf club.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.

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