(AP) Michelle Wie, the Hawaii teen who has been competing against golf’s best players since she was in the seventh grade, turned professional Wednesday.
“I’m finally happy to say I’m a pro starting today,” Wie said, wearing a pink Nike shirt and high heels that made her look even taller than 6 feet. “The first time I grabbed a golf club, I knew I’d do it for the rest of my life. Some 12 years later, I’m finally turning pro, and I’m so excited.”
The splashy announcement was hardly a surprise. It had been reported for weeks that Wie would go pro by her 16th birthday next week.
She has signed endorsement deals with Nike and Sony said to be worth $10 million a year, and her first act as a professional was to give some of it back.
Wie pledged $500,000 to the U.S. Golf Hurricane Relief Fund, set up by the major golf organizations.
She made the pro announcement at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel, next to the 10th fairway at Waialae Country Club where, at age 13, she shot 68 in the Sony Open, the lowest score ever by a female competing on the men’s tour.
Lest anyone think she was skipping class on this special day, Wie said she still planned to join her junior class at the private Punahou School in time for “Japanese or drawing, depending on how long this thing lasts.”
Still six days away from being able to get her driver’s license, Wie will make her professional debut next week on the LPGA Tour at the Samsung World Championship, an 18-player field at Bighorn Golf Club in the California desert. She also will play in the Casio World Open in Japan the week of Thanksgiving, her sixth time competing against men.
She has yet to make the cut against men, but has more than held her own on the LPGA Tour.
Wie was runner-up at the LPGA Championship to Annika Sorenstam, and tied for third at the Women’s British Open. She has made the cut in her last 16 LPGA events dating to 2003, and would have earned about $640,870 on the LPGA had she not been an amateur. That would put her 13th on the money list in only seven starts.
She is not expected to join the LPGA Tour until she turns 18, but can play as many as eight LPGA Tour events each of the next two years. Wie likely will play a couple of other times on the PGA Tour, and on men’s tours overseas.
Her path is different from Tiger Woods, who dominated every level of amateur play when he turned pro at age 20 with his famous “Hello, World” statement.
Wie chose to play the best competition she could find, taking her to the LPGA Tour at age 12 when she qualified for the Takefuji Classic in Hawaii and missed the cut.
“Michelle obviously has some talent,” Woods said Tuesday. “When I was 16, I wasn’t even thinking about turning pro. I was just hoping to get into college somewhere. She has a talent, and has been good enough to make a giant step like that.”
The next step is winning.
Wie overwhelmed all the competition she could find in Hawaii, winning the premier women’s amateur event by nine shots when she was 11 years old. Her only significant title was the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, which she won at age 13 to become the youngest champion of a USGA title for adults.
Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman is among those who believe winning is a matter of time.
Lehman first saw Wie when she was 12 and playing a junior pro-am at the Sony Open. He was the one who first called her the “Big Wiesy,” saying her fluid swing reminded him of Ernie Els, the “Big Easy.”
“I’ve always felt like she’s Secretariat,” Lehman said. “You can give her minor adjustments—adjust the bit in her mouth—but it’s like, ‘Let her go.’ She’s that good.”
She also is a millionaire now, starting a career with two major endorsements with more surely to follow. Her deals with Nike and Sony already make her the richest woman golfer. Sorenstam, who has won 66 times and nine majors, brings in about $6 million a year in endorsements.
Wie will be represented by William Morris. Her agent is Ross Berlin, who formerly worked for the PGA Tour.