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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Buildup to a breakthrough?

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

After fine-tuning her swing at a baseball game, Michelle Wie will tee off in South Korea tomorrow.

LEE JIN-MAN | Associated Press

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Adoring fans get an up-close look at Michelle Wie during a clinic at the Sky 72 Golf Club in Incheon, South Korea.

LEE JIN-MAN | Associated Press

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Not too many of her booming drives removed from where United Nations troops made their Korean War Incheon landings almost 56 years ago, Michelle Wie will tee off in the SK Telecom Open tomorrow (today Hawai'i time).

Unlike Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, however, Wie has already yielded any element of surprise.

Hers has been an invasion of celebrity splash and marketing mania from the moment her plane touched down. For nearly a week Wie has been given rock star-like treatment in the country of her parents' birth.

The red carpet has been rolled out as if for a head of state's visit. She's taken batting practice in a custom Nike uniform at a professional baseball game. She's been feted at ceremonies, mixed with actors and received acclaim for charitable donations, her every appearance headlined and utterance dutifully reported.

But along with the considerable buildup and a reported $700,000 appearance fee for a tournament that only offers a $600,000 purse come hopes and expectations.

Not that a lot is expected of Wie, you understand, but it has been noted that the number on the baseball uniform she was given is 54 a round of 18 birdies.

So, after coming up short in seven previous attempts to make the cut in a men's tournament, three times at Waialae Country Club, the hope, if not the expectation, is that the Sky 72 course is where Wie will make her breakthrough.

After attempts on the PGA, Nationwide, Canadian and Japan tours, the plan is the land of her ancestry where Yonhap news agency heralded her visit as a "homecoming" for the U.S.-born prodigy will provide an auspicious setting on the Asian Tour.

So consuming has Wie's perky, photogenic presence in her first visit to Korea as a professional golfer been that defending champion K.J. Choi's shot at a hat trick at the tournament has been thoroughly overshadowed. Indeed, the Asian Tour's official Web site notes Choi is "not getting the attention that he is used to in his native country," having been eclipsed by a 16-year-old.

To read Korean media reports, the contenders' talk for the SK Open has often been more about Wie and less about Choi.

"The course will be bustling with spectators and media on the (tournament) day. But how often does one get to play with the famous Michelle Wie?" Dae-seop Kim, one of the contenders, told the Dong-A Ilbo, a major national newspaper. "I would like to see how far she can really hit."

Korean players who have won on the LPGA Tour have been similarly taking a backseat to even revelations about Wie's favorite Korean foods and dramas.

After falling a stroke short of making the cut in the 2004 Sony Open in Hawai'i and at the Casio World in Japan six months ago, the SK Open would seem to set up well for Wie. The course is 7,111 yards and with breezes off the Yellow Sea. The competition isn't PGA Tour quality and the gallery will be nearly Hawai'i-friendly.

Wherever Wie finishes in the tournament, she figures to leave Korea the big winner. The Chosun Ilbo said rumors in advertising circles have it that an unnamed company will pay her $2.4 million for a two-year campaign. That, the paper said, would put her ahead of K-pop musical star "Rain," the reigning endorsement leader who was said to receive $1 million. Moreover, the paper said, a deal with a non-sportswear clothing manufacturer may net Wie $1 million.

After all the buildup that has gone into this visit and the barely tethered hopes riding on it, here's an opportunity for Wie to begin paying off.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.