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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 6, 2005

Millions richer, but best yet to come

 •  Banking on a one-and-only
 •  World watches Wie begin 'new journey'
 •  Wie will have target on her back

By Bill Kwon
Special to The Advertiser

Michelle Wie showed off a Nike prototype putter, complete with a hula girl grip, designed for her, yesterday at Waialae Country Club.

RONEN ZILBERMAN | Associated Press

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Swoosh. Just like that Michelle Wie is now a professional.

So begins the next chapter in the remarkable saga of Hawai'i's most famous and now, likeliest, the richest teenager, who officially announced yesterday that she's turning pro.

No mulligans for the Punahou School junior who turns 16 Tuesday.

The most recognized women's amateur golfer in the world signed multi-year deals with two of the most recognized companies in the world Nike and Sony. Expect other sponsors to line up, contracts in hand.

Terms were not disclosed. But it figures to be around $8 million to $10 million. It's sizable enough for Wie to donate $500,000 off the top to the U.S. Golf Hurricane Relief Fund.

The newly acquired riches haven't turned Wie's head. She plans on finishing high school and is definitely going to college and graduate, "no matter how long it takes." That's her first priority, Wie said.

Still, pocketing some tournament money will be nice for Wie. As an amateur, she had to turn down more than $680,000 in possible winnings in seven LPGA events this year.

But tournament earnings will pale in significance to what Wie will now begin to earn in endorsements and appearance money, the latter when it comes to events in Asia and Europe.

That's another dynamic about Wie's marketability: her potential as a charismatic Asian-American athlete. Sony, the one and only, helped itself by signing another one and only.

Promotional spots in which Wie will speak in Korean, Japanese and Mandarin are being planned, according to Ross Berlin of the William Morris Agency, which represents Wie.

"She will be as big as any American athlete in Asia," Berlin said.

That Wie has come so far so soon shouldn't be surprising, since it was a dedicated Team Wie effort. Her parents, BJ and Bo, sacrificed so much for their only child. And it has certainly paid off.

Everything that the teen phenom has accomplished ever since she first picked up a golf club at the age of 4 has been done in a big way, with a big splash. Yesterday's satellite-live press conference was no exception.

At 10, she was the youngest to qualify for a USGA event. At 11, she won two local major women's titles the Jennie K. Invitational and the Hawai'i State Women's Stroke Play Championship. At 13, she became the youngest player to win an adult USGA championship.

Her accomplishments, especially in the past two years when Wie made the cut in every LPGA event she entered, drew national attention. Playing against the men in PGA Tour events heightened her global appeal, enabling her to achieve celebrity status. When you make it to the David Letterman show and in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, you can make it anywhere.

Nike and Sony recognize that Wie is a special young lady.

"She's a great Nike story. A 'Just Do It' story," said Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf, who attended yesterday's press conference at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

"She's a full package. At 16, she has already accomplished a lot and she has the ability to transcend her sport," said Wood, who welcomed Wie to the Nike family, which also includes Tiger Woods.

Wood didn't want to make any comparison between Woods and Wie, but said that Nike is excited about Wie's potential.

"When Tiger turned professional he hadn't had the tremendous success that he has now and he was already playing full time on the (PGA) tour," Wood said. "Michelle's a little different. She's not a full-time professional. But they do have that instantaneous appeal."

"She still has a lot of time to develop," Wood added. "She's going to play at the top of her game for 20 years."

Wie still needs to win an LPGA event so she won't be the Anna Kournikova of golf all style and no substance. You just know that Nike and Sony will extend their deals as soon as Wie starts winning.

Based on her track record where she has been successful at every level, Wie will soon win a tournament, perhaps even as early as next week's LPGA Samsung World Championship. The odds are good, 20 to 1, considering only 20 players are in the field.

Will she be nervous in her pro debut?

"A little more nervous than usual," said Wie, who added that she knew she wanted to be a professional when she first picked up a golf club.

The biggest pro about turning pro is that she now can be in a position to help people, said Wie, who couldn't think of a con about her decision.

Wie, who has said over the years that she's having fun playing golf as an amateur, now faces the real world as a professional. It's no longer just fun and games when a livelihood is at stake, although endorsements can provide a comfy cushion for now.

NBC golf analyst Mark Rolfing, who was at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open when Woods announced he was turning pro with far less fanfare than Wie, thinks Michelle's first test will be on the first tee next week in Palm Desert, Calif.

"Tiger said the most nervous he has ever been was on the first tee at Milwaukee," Rolfing said. "I think it's added pressure, no doubt."