2005: Golf’s next superhero

Beaverton, Ore.

Do not make the mistake of underestimating Wondergirl. Soon enough, she will dominate women’s golf.

Right now, Michelle Wie is young enough to go giggly over a new putter grip. Christened the Hula Girl Grip by the Nike rat pack, it features the sparkling image of a Hawaiian dancer underneath a transparent outer layer.

New grip, new putter. In her first pro start at this week’s Samsung World Championship, Wie will carry 14 Nike clubs. This includes a prototype putter that will be introduced to consumers in 2006.

Looking ahead, when she goes Wie-Wie-Wie all the way home to victory, there likely will be a surge in the demand for Wie-like clubs.

Currently, she carries what are called “Tiger blades,” a long-bladed forged iron, identical to the model used by Tiger Woods. Her irons are a half-inch extra long, with S-400 Dynamic Gold steel shafts. Her Nike SasQuatch driver and 3-wood have Fujikura 757 Speeder X shafts.

Wie turned 16 on Oct. 11. My crystal ball says she will win multiple LPGA events before she is 18. Furthermore, she will win a major championship.

Am I crazy to make such a prediction? I think it would be crazy to expect otherwise. Wie is the rarest of golfers, the powerhouse prodigy who appears every 40 or 50 years.

Here’s what I ask those who doubt her ability to win: Have you seen her play?

When she hits an iron shot, the click of metal and ball is different from that produced by other female players. It is deeper and more resounding. As a 15-year-old, she finished in the top three in two majors. Had she been a pro in 2005, she would have earned more money per LPGA start than anyone except Annika Sorenstam.

Wie is 6 feet tall. She is an exceptionally long hitter. Her wedge game is solid. Putting is the only question mark.

Nike, anticipating the future of golf, knows the bombers will rule.

“Golf is attracting big athletes,” said Kel Devlin, Nike’s global director of sports marketing, “Ten years from now, Tiger will be a small player (physically) on the Tour.”

The courting of Wondergirl started in 2003. That’s when Phil Knight, founder and chairman of Nike, saw Wie play in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club and ultimately placed a phone call to the Wie family.

“That tends to get your attention,” said Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf. “The thing is, Phil really cares about these young athletes. He’s a very intuitive person, and he was just as enthusiastic about Michelle as he was about Tiger.”

Despite her Nike millions, Wie will not be Nike’s female standard-bearer. That belongs to Grace Park.

“Grace is the face of women’s golf for us,” Wood said, reflecting on her image in Nike ads and promotional materials. “She’s a beautiful woman who acts like a model. She also is a (golf) champion. The way we use Grace and the way we use Michelle is a different deal. Michelle is still unfolding.”

Wie’s South Korean parents are American citizens.

I have known them for several years. They are extremely protective of their only child.

Thus the Wie travel and tournament schedule for 2006 will be conscientiously curtailed, much as it was for 2005. In 2007, after she graduates from high school, the schedule will expand.

Her father, B.J., is a professor of transportation at the University of Hawaii. His handicap once was a 5, but he is too busy to play these days. Her mother, Bo, sells real estate. She is a former winner of the Korean Women’s Amateur.

Asian players are attractive to Nike. “Forty percent of Nike’s golf business is outside the United States,” Wood said.

Nike Golf, formally launched in 1998, boasts a professional staff of more than 110 touring pros around the world. Several come from Japan, Korea and China, where golf has created contemporary heroes.

“Grace gets off a plane in Seoul, there are 10 photographers there waiting for her,” Wood said

of Park, who is South Korean. “People want to know what she is wearing, who she is going out with. These golfers are cultural icons.”

Nike embraces the worldwide fame that can fall on a 16-year-old girl, but it also recognizes the fact that she must attend and finish high school.

Wie’s contract with Nike contains incentive clauses, so her endorsement income will depend on her success in tournaments.

“Our demands on her time are realistic,” Wood said. “My personal view is that we need to be patient with this.”

Americans may wonder about thrusting a 16-year-old girl into the international sports spotlight, but the Wie family believes she is prepared.

“She has gone through different stages,” said B.J. Wie, “and each has helped her become a mature young woman. Her first season, she played in three (LPGA) events and missed the cut in all three. The second year, she learned how to make the cut.

“The third year, she improved even more, and her scoring average was under par. This year (2005), she was on the leaderboard every time she played.”

Another sign of her maturity: Her parents were surprised but delighted when Michelle told them she wanted to donate $500,000 to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“We were expecting maybe $100,000,” he said. “Bo and Michelle and I were watching television (after the hurricane), and Michelle was crying. She said right then she wanted to donate $500,000.”

The Wies will organize a charitable foundation similar to the one started by Woods.

Surely there will be a few bumps in the Wie road. On potential jealousies and hard feelings within the LPGA, Nike’s Wood threw back his head and laughed heartily.

“There were some players who felt that way about Tiger when he first came out,” Wood said. “After the first TV commercial, they shut up. They saw that prize money would be going up. The same thing could happen in women’s golf, and it could happen sooner rather than later.”

Wondergirl to the rescue.

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