Wie proves again how crucial she is to LPGA Tour's future

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Two older men walked across a wooden bridge on the way to the 17th tee Saturday on the Champions course at LPGA Q-School. Let's call them Waldorf and Statler. "Celebrity worship, that's all this is," harrumphed Waldorf. "Yeah," said Statler. The two men walked a few paces. Then Waldorf spoke again: "But she's here, so it's a chance to see her in person."

Much like the original Waldorf and Statler in the balcony on "The Muppet Show," these two gents grumbled and groused but didn't leave.

When Michelle Wie putted out for par on the 18th green for a four-round total of 14-under and a spot in Sunday's final group, the two men were there to see it.

A lot of people don't like Wie for reasons that often have little to do with Wie herself. But it's very hard to dispute the argument that there is no one more important to the future of the LPGA than the 19-year-old from Hawaii. Her gallery Saturday is proof.

Wie had about 150 people following her around all day, which is large for a non-Annika Sorenstam gallery at any nonmajor stop on the LPGA Tour. Now that Sorenstam has retired, 150 people is large for just about any player at any nonmajor tour stop. And those fans came in all varieties.

There was an 11-month-old (with parents, of course). There was an older couple holding hands. There were frat guys with their girlfriends.

There was a little girl with an autograph book. There was a middle-aged Asian man who spoke with Michelle's father in Korean.

There was an African-American man in spikes and a cap who looked like he had a tee time later that day.

Of course Lorena Ochoa, Natalie Gulbis and Paula Creamer have their followers, but pretty much all of them are golf fans.

Wie brings in more than just golf fans. She brings in the idly curious. She even brings in people who think her buzz is nothing more than "celebrity worship" yet spend the time and even the money to perpetuate that celebrity.

"Michelle Wie is a great player and fan favorite," said LPGA deputy commissioner Libba Galloway. "We're excited about Michelle Wie, Ji-Yai Shin, Stacy Lewis and other promising young rookies competing with established stars like Lorena, Paula and Suzann [Pettersen] in 2009. LPGA fans across the globe should stay tuned for an exciting season of LPGA golf."

These people don't look up the online leaderboard and then decide whether or not to show up. These people show up because Wie showed up.

This week proves it, as Wie is not playing for a win, is not playing against anyone fans know well, and is not even playing for a better spot on Tour. All she has to do is place in the top 20 on Sunday and she's in. The chances of that are basically 100 percent. So these people just come to watch, and the LPGA needs fans like that badly.

"We're entertainers, and we need to entertain," says Nicole Hage, 23, who is on the cusp of qualifying for full status after earning partial status last season. "She brings a lot of publicity wherever she goes. The media loves her. She brings a lot of people. So, of course, it'll help [to have her on Tour]."

And the LPGA needs Wie now more than ever. Purses are down (by $5 million) and the event calendar is shrinking (by three events) in 2009. ADT pulled its sponsorship of the Tour's season-ending tournament. And if you haven't noticed, the economy is in trouble. This summer's language requirement fiasco highlighted yet another wrinkle to the Tour's challenges. The Korean players win a lot, and Korean television contracts are a crucial lifeline for the Tour, and yet American fans don't know the Koreans and don't care about them. That's in part because a few Korean Tour members don't speak superb English.

Commissioner Carolyn Bivens strangely decided to force the issue and mandate conversational English, but that only blew up in her face. One of the young Koreans, Amy Yang, was told by her father after the ruling to stop watching Korean television and learn to speak English better.

But Wie wound up in the same group with Yang on Saturday at Q-School, spoke with her in Korean on the course, and gave American reporters a five-hour introduction to Yang's sizzling iron game. (Yang hit every green in regulation on Saturday.) So Wie indirectly helped Yang's profile a lot more than an hour on Rosetta Stone.

Of course, Bivens wouldn't have to worry so much about pleasing both American and Korean fans if Wie played on Tour, as Wie speaks fluent English and fluent Korean (except this week, when Wie isn't speaking to any media in any language until after the final round Sunday). Her galleries are always filled with both Asians and Caucasians, which is rare for any LPGA player. That helps especially as the Tour plays 11 of its 31 events outside the U.S.

There are plenty of other reasons Wie spins turnstiles and spikes ratings. She's visually arresting, both for her height and her looks.

She drives the ball longer than most players on Tour, and she has an array of shots that many Tour players don't have. She has a tendency to take risks and go for the incredible shot, which is not always smart though it is entertaining. And there's the Sarah Palin factor: There's always a chance Wie will live up to her enormous potential, and there's always a chance she'll screw up. So there's always a chance for personal drama, even when there's no chance for tournament drama. Some want her to fail; some want her to succeed. But ticket sales and Nielson ratings don't discriminate between love and hate.

Eyes are eyes and dollars are dollars.

The LPGA knows this, even if its officials won't admit it publicly. There is a merchandise tent set up by the 10th tee this week at Q-School. Fans can buy shirts and hats and all sorts of LPGA gear. Are sales up this year compared to last year? Probably so.

There was no tent last year.

Eric Adelson's book on Michelle Wie will be released in 2009, but is available for preorder. He can be reached at ericadelson@gmail.com.