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Off-course millionaire

Sports | Golf phenom Michelle Wie has taken the plunge into the professional ranks

Issue: "Miers doesn't fit the mold," Oct. 15, 2005

Ready or not, here she comes. Golf commentators say she caves under pressure. PGA pros express reservations when she plays tour events. But as of Oct. 3, golf phenom Michelle Wie dropped her amateur status and took the plunge into the professional ranks.

For Ms. Wie life as a professional golfer looks a bit different than it does for Annika Sorenstam. Just six days shy of her 16th birthday, the Honolulu girl announced the decision at an 8 a.m. press conference-giving her enough time to make it back to the Punahou School for her 11th-grade classes. She'll still be missing a lot of school.

She'll take a week off for her first LPGA event as a professional, the Samsung World Championship with an $850,000 purse. Not that Ms. Wie is expected to win. In fact, this is the most common criticism directed at Ms. Wie, especially when compared to Tiger Woods. Mr. Woods, who went pro after winning six amateur championships, established himself as a winner. Ms. Wie, on the other hand, has only one big victory to her credit: the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur.

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Almost three months ago, defending John Deere Classic champion Mark Hensby caused a stir when he suggested Ms. Wie's invitation to play at the 2005 John Deere was a publicity stunt. "I don't think a 15-year-old girl who's done nothing at all should get a sponsor's exemption to a PGA tour event," he said. "But I don't blame the John Deere Classic or Michelle. I blame her parents, and the people running her affairs."

But the truth is that even though Ms. Wie is still a schoolgirl, she may be at her peak as a golf moneymaker. Not that the earnings need come from tour victories. Because of an LPGA 18-year-old membership restriction, she'll only be able to play on the women's tour with sponsor exemptions. And though she'll no doubt win some money there, sports marketers seem ready to make her a wealthy teen.

Before making the step into the professional ranks, Ms. Wie's business team worked out endorsement deals-including big ones with Nike and Sony-that will pay the teenager nearly $10 million a year. With the boon, Ms. Wie instantly becomes the third-highest-earning female athlete in the world behind tennis players Maria Sharipova and Serena Williams. For a high-school junior, that's not a bad career move.

Around the Horn

  • The Chicago White Sox can take away some hope from their opponents during the first round of the baseball playoffs. After all, Boston, the White Sox opponents, proved last season that even one of the longest World Series droughts can be broken. The White Sox haven't won a World Series since 1917 and have only made it to one once since they threw the series during the famed Black Sox scandal of 1919.
  • For Kansas City Chiefs tight ends coach Jason Verduzco, just getting to the office was painful. Police sprayed the 35-year-old man with mace when officers say he became combative after they stopped him driving into the normal stadium entrance. After arguing, officers tried to remove Mr. Verduzco from his car while he slapped at their hands and pulled away. That's when an officer sprayed the mace. After a trip to an ambulance to wash out his eyes, Mr. Verduzco finally made it to the Chiefs game day preparations-just a bit late.
  • Team owner and on-ice captain Mario Lemieux still skates for the Pittsburgh Pengiuns, but the 40-year-old star isn't the biggest story anymore. That distinction goes to rookie prodigy Sidney Crosby, 18, who bears not only the weight of Penguins fans, some of whom expect him to surpass Mr. Lemieux, but also of a league that desperately needs new stars and stories.

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