On Oct. 5th, a girl just shy of her 16th birthday became a professional golfer. Eight days later that same girl took her first shot as a professional on the LPGA tour. Eleven days later she was disqualified.
Say hello to Michelle Wie. She isn’t some elaborate stunt generated through media hype either. Wie is for real. How real you ask? How about finishing second in the LPGA Championship behind only the top professional female golfer in the world: Annika Sorenstam. Or how about shooting a 68 on the PGA Tour (playing with the best male golfers on the planet) at the Sony Open when she was 14! Fourteen, people! What were you doing when you were 14?
Michelle Wie made the right decision, or rather, the decision she had to make. Last year, she would have made $640,870 for her scores alone had she given up her amateur status, not to mention millions from endorsements. What if she had blown out her knee or suddenly started slicing every drive? She never would have seen a dime and she would have been tossed aside to make room for the next sports prodigy. This year she’s making sure she gets paid: Wie signed deals with Sony and Nike totaling over $10 million dollars annually the very first day she turned pro.
What does it say about modern sports when we thrust kids into the spotlight, expecting them to perform while handling the pressure that comes with millions of dollars and their own shoe? The line that divides professional sports and kids having fun is becoming increasingly blurred.
I fear we are headed for the day when Mel Kiper Jr.’s analysis of the NFL draft consists of interviewing expectant mothers and studying ultrasounds. “As you can see here Tom, this kid has got tremendous upside potential. Just look at that head! And the ratio of his arms to his body. He’s going to be a cerebral player with the wingspan big enough to snatch down those end zone lobs. That is if it’s a he- Still too early to tell Tom, but the 49ers have gotta take him #1!”
Sound ridiculous? Reebok exploited a 3-year-old in a national ad campaign back in 2003. In its ongoing effort to boost its stock by a quarter of a point, Reebok featured little Mark Walker Jr. making 18 straight basketball shots long before he ever knew how to read.
The odds are stacked against every baller-to-be in pull-ups too. For every success story there are countless failures. For every Lebron James there is a Maurice Clarett (who currently signed a contract with ESPN to live in a house with Ryan Leaf, Eric Crouch, Darko Milicic and Michael Olowokandi as a part of ESPN’s Biggest Sports Flops). Ok, so maybe that isn’t a real TV show, but any sports fan wants -check that- needs to see Darko “the human victory cigar” Milicic and Ryan Leaf chase chickens around the backyard in an attempt to win immunity and pay their mortgage. Any college athlete seeing that would think twice before accepting money from an agent to add a few decibels to their sound system.
If Michelle Wie elevates her game in the coming years and becomes not only the best female golfer in the world, but one of the best golfers period, she has merely lived up to expectations. The same lofty expectations most likely to cripple her game and stunt her growth as an athlete.
Fast forward to Sunday during the final round of her professional debut; Wie is rolling. Drives soaring down the heart of the fairway, chip-ins effortlessly finding the bottom of the cup. She would have finished fourth: had it not been for one mistake and one reporter.
Rewind to Saturday; Wie took a drop (placed the golf ball back into play after hitting it into the bushes) that would have been perfectly legal had she not dropped it slightly closer to the hole than where it originally was. It did not matter whether it was 3 inches as Wie said, or one foot as rule officials claimed, she was officially disqualified from her first ever tournament as a professional.
Press pause; now we have Wie trying to compose herself in front of flashing cameras and belligerent reporters asking her how she possibly could have made such a careless mistake. No one wants to see a girl being bombarded with questions for making an honest mistake, yet Sportscenter runs her entire interview while ignoring the fact that Annika Sorenstam won the tournament by 8 stokes. The teenage drama had eclipsed the adult athletic feat.
What makes this story even more interesting is the fact that a reporter for Sports Illustrated, Michael Bamberger, pointed out the rule violation not on Saturday, but Sunday afternoon after Wie had finished fourth. I for one commend this reporter’s attention to detail in his attempt to preserve the “integrity” of the game. I’m sure his intentions were pure and in no way motivated by his desire for a front-page story. In fact, next week he should stand right behind Wie and get a closer examination of her back swing-
In a society obsessed with what’s next, companies signing babies and the media willing to crush any athlete (regardless of age) for a story, where does our obsession with potential end and our appreciation for great athletic achievements start?
It is time we start celebrating great athletic achievements and stop endlessly debating who is the next Michael Jordan or the next Tiger Woods. We are inadvertently drowning the next generation of athletes in a media-driven spotlight before they are ever able to amaze us with their talent. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to draft Michelle Wie in my fantasy golf keeper league.