Posted: Friday November 11, 2005 2:59PM; Updated: Friday November 11, 2005 4:26PM
Few athletes had to deal with the pressure that Michelle Wie faced in 2005.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
By John Garrity
Do you have to actually win something to be Sportsman of the Year? I hope not, because my candidate, Michelle Wie, hasn't finished first since she won the ring toss at the 2004 Punahou School Carnival. So far this year, the 16-year-old golfer has won no tournaments as an amateur and -- hold on while I crunch some numbers -- uh, zero dollars as a professional. By comparison, Annika Sorenstam has won eight LPGA events and $2.2 million in prize money.
Wie hasn't even won the battle of teen golfers. Her smack-talking rival, Morgan Pressel, won the 2005 U.S. Women's Amateur and finished second in the U.S. Women's Open. Her pretty-in-pink rival, Paula Creamer, won two LPGA events and recently led the U.S. women to victory in the Solheim Cup.
Nevertheless, when I'm 90 and rocking away my days at the Golf Writers' Retirement Home, I'll probably remember 2005 as the year A.W. (After Wie.)
Partly it's the money. When Wie turned pro in October, Nike and Sony signed her to a combined $10 million in endorsement money. No golfer in history -- with the notable exception of Tiger Woods -- has been launched with such largesse.
Partly it's the hype. By signing with Hollywood's William Morris Agency instead of an established sports giant like IMG, Wie and her family made it clear that they hope to turn her into a "brand" recognizable in every corner of the world -- particularly in Asia, where her Korean-American roots and striking good looks make her a marketer's dream. But mostly it's her game.
I know, I know, she hasn't won anything. But that's because Wie is head and shoulders above the age-group peers she would be thrashing if she played on her high school team or traveled the junior golf circuit. In 2004, she played in the PGA Tour's Sony Open on a sponsor's exemption and missed the cut by one stroke, beating the reigning British Open and U.S. Open champions in the process. This year, despite playing in only eight LPGA events, Wie contended in three of the four women's majors. She finished second in the LPGA Championship, third in the Women's British Open, and she played in the final group on Sunday at the U.S. Women's Open. She was runner-up in two other LPGA events and would have finished fourth in her first outing as a pro, the recent Samsung World Championship, if she hadn't been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. In other words, almost every time she teed it up Wie beat all but one or two players from the combined U.S. and European Solheim Cup teams.
Not content to steal headlines from Sorenstam and company, Wie also appeared in three more PGA Tour events -- most notably the John Deere Classic, where she once again flirted with the cut -- and made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Public Links Championship. Had she won this latter event, male-chauvinist swine noted with a shudder, Wie would have won an automatic invitation to the Masters.
Need a benchmark? I covered Woods, then a spindly 16, when he played in his first Tour event, the 1992 Los Angeles Open. Tiger was very impressive, but he sprayed a lot of shots into the trees, shot 72-75, and missed the cut by six strokes. Nevertheless, I proclaimed him the can't-miss savior of American golf. Wie, now a spindly 16 herself, is about as tall as Tiger was, a little bit stronger, and quite frankly, a better all-around player. And I don't mean better than her peers. I mean better than Tiger was at the same age. Fine, Wie hasn't won anything. But when a high school sophomore can beat almost every woman golfer alive, I think we should give her something for her empty trophy case.
How about the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award?