Consider Michelle Wie. Now 20-years-old, the phenom from Hawaii burst onto the professional golf scene in the period between 2003-2005. By her sixteenth birthday, she had already played an event on the men's PGA Tour twice. She then turned pro, signed with Nike, and promptly almost won a women's professional major, the LPGA Championship. The following year, she almost won the other four. By 2007, she was earning $19 million per year. Her beautiful, flowing swing has been called the best in golf, for a man or a woman, by Johnny Miller. She is an appealing, attractive, marketable young woman who will soon graduate from Stanford.
And from the moment she arrived, the golf establishment and the media have harassed, hounded, and undermined her success.
Why would golf do this to its most bankable star since Tiger Woods? Simple: She's a woman in a sport full of men who never stop being threatened. The golf establishment, especially in the United States, is full of venal, haunted little men -- players, executives, sportswriters, broadcasters -- who pledge allegiance to the spirit and dignity of an ancient Scottish game, but who in truth want to dismiss anything that disrupts their once-comfortable lock on the sport.
It's been forgotten now, but Tiger was assailed when he first arrived. Some called his epic 1997 Masters win a fluke. Others suggested that he had been given unfair advantages by being allowed to skip the PGA Tour's qualifying school. But over the ensuing years, through sheer brilliance, Woods wore down his critics. By the time he won the 2008 U.S. Open, limping through a Monday playoff on what was effectively a broken leg, all naysaying had been vanquished.
Wie, by contrast, has been worn down, by the media, the sport's overlords, and her peers. Only recently has she begun to show signs of her teen dazzle. But it could be too late, as the LPGA Tour has experienced an armageddon of sorts since the financial crisis hit in late 2008.
The LPGA was already in bad shape. It had a great crop of new, young players, including Wie, but it was failing to convert them into tournament draws. As Wie fell in the rankings and suffered through controversy after controversy, players such as Lorena Ochoa, Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel, and Paula Creamer stepped up, but the world was indifferent. Meanwhile, a bevy of South Korean players was arriving. They were all talented, but it was an impossible TV sell. If the LPGA couldn't get viewers to watch Ochoa and Creamer, it was going to find the South Koreans challenging. Some commenters even went so far as to argue that the game's future lay not in the U.S. and Europe, but in Asia, and South Korea in particular. Given how good the South Korean women are, they're probably right.
This was the exact moment the LPGA, and golf in general, needed Wie, to act as a marquee draw, to establish a showcase for her peers and to allow the South Korean generation to gain exposure. Instead, golf has made sure that Wie wasn't a factor. But golf had committed a grave sin against Karma. As the financial meltdown laid low sponsor after sponsor, the LPGA was forced to scrounge. But what did it have to sell? Ochoa, a wonderful Mexican player and a player in the mold of the great international sportswomen of history, but beyond her, a coterie of inconsistent youngsters.
Wie is currently ranked 15th in the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings. She earned her playing privileges the hard way, by going through LPGA Q-school. She seems committed to women's golf, and to winning a professional event, and has put her foray into the men's game behind her. And yet...golf still hasn't given the love to this extraordinary, potential champion, and its best hope to ensure the survival of women's pro golf during what has to be seen as the most serious crisis in its history. The LPGA Tour has lost tournaments and seen prize money reduced in 2009. The only good news is that, in partnership with The Golf Channel, the LPGA no longer has to pay to get its events on TV, as it did for a number of years.
Golf likes to pretend that the game is bigger than any individual player, but over its history, that pretense has been upended time and time again -- to the sport's benefit. Bobby Jones, although a great sportsman, was briefly bigger than the game. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were bigger than the game. The great female champion Babe Didrikson Zaharias was bigger than the game. Tiger Woods...well, Tiger is bigger than anyone who has ever been bigger than the game.
Michelle Wie had the potential to be bigger than the game and to provide women's golf with the worldwide explosion in popularity that it needs. But the best possible time for that to happen was two or three years ago, before she was buried under an avalanche of negativity and slumped. She's back now, and she seems like a more mature person and more complete player. But opportunity lost is still opportunity lost. And if women's golf continues to falter, golf will only have itself and its ridiculous, petty culture to blame. Wie was, and to a degree, still is the future. Her ascent was Tiger Woods crossed with the Williams sisters. Her decline was troubling. Her comeback is critical.