HAVRE DE GRACE, MD. -- When Tiger Woods left the amateur ranks in August 1996 and sauntered onto the PGA Tour with a gazillion Nike dollars in his pockets, there was more than a little jealousy and resentment from veteran players. Despite his glittering amateur record, many wondered why an unproven 20-year-old would be rewarded so handsomely before proving himself as a pro. But Tiger did two things to shut his critics up: He won, and he embraced his tour.
Woods was victorious in the fifth event in which he played as a professional and by the following April, when he steamrolled the Masters by 12 strokes, he was unquestionably the best player in the world. That Masters also got a 14.1 TV rating -- the highest golf rating since the cable era began more than a quarter century ago -- and within a month of Tiger slipping into the green jacket the tour had negotiated a new TV contract that increased purses by nearly 40 percent.
Two notions suddenly rattled home in the heads of the players. This Tiger Woods guy is a very good golfer; perhaps unlike anything we have ever seen. And he is going to make us all rich. That's exactly what has happened. The first decade of the Tiger Woods Era has seen PGA Tour purses triple. A tour that didn't have its first $1 million season earner until the mid-1980s had nearly 90 last year. End of jealousy. End of resentment.
In Michelle Wie the LPGA has a special talent that could lead it to new riches as well. The difference is Wie is holding the tour and its players at arm's length while she rakes in the dough with the other arm. Refusing to join the tour and insisting on flaunting the rules has angered both players and LPGA officials. It is perceived as a sense of entitlement out of proportion to achievement. But all that could be fixed very easily. Join the LPGA. If Wie embraces the women's tour the women's tour will embrace her.
Wie has big dreams. She wants to play against the men. And those dreams should be encouraged. But they need to be pursued within a sensible time frame. And her recent endeavors in men's events scream out that a 17-year-old girl is prepared neither physically nor emotionally to compete against the best players in the world. Perhaps that day will come, but it is not now.
Wie starts college at Stanford in September and that seems to be a perfect opportunity for Team Wie to say it will put competing against the men on a back burner until after school. Remember, Wie will still only be 21 years old when she graduates. Presumably she will be physically stronger and probably more emotionally mature. Certainly, her 6-foot-2 frame and superb ball-striking ability are not going to go away. There will be plenty of time to pursue her dream. Meantime, she can join the LPGA and play the required 10 events a year.
Over the last two weeks -- first at the Ginn Tribute and then this week at the McDonald's LPGA Championship -- the fragile peace between Wie and the members of the LPGA has appeared frayed at the edge. More and more players are coming closer to voicing publicly what they have been saying privately for a while now: Wie is in it for herself and has no interest in growing the game, especially in growing the LPGA.
When Wie withdrew with two holes to play in the first round of the Ginn Tribute virtually no player believed it was because of an injury, as she said. The overwhelming consensus was that she walked off the course rather than risk being suspended from tour play for the rest of the year for failing to break 88 in a competitive round. Salt was poured in that wound when she showed up two days later practicing at Bulle Rock, where the McDonald's is being played this week.
The festering resentment also took a turn for the worse when, for the second week in a row, Wie's pro-am partners complained that she was less than friendly during a round each of the four players has paid thousands of dollars to play. It is a charge Wie denies. And on Tuesday at Bulle Rock an LPGA rules official triggered anger in the Wie camp when he enforced a tour rule that says only the caddie and coach are allowed to be on the practice range with the player, booting the rest of the Wie entourage off the range.
The resentment is also building over the fact that at the second LPGA major of the year -- and, ironically the flagship event of the tour, the LPGA Championship -- attention is being diverted away from the tournament and directed at one player who is not even a member of the tour. The tragedy of this occurrence is that the LPGA quite likely has at this moment the best product it has ever put into competition.
The strengths of the LPGA continue to grow. Its international membership gives it worldwide appeal -- more than two dozen nations are represented on tour. At the same time young American stars are emerging in impressive numbers. Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Prammanasudh, Nicole Castrale and Meaghan Francella have all won this year. And they are all between the ages of 18 and 28. In Lorena Ochoa the tour has an extremely talented and likeable No. 1 player. And then there is Annika Sorenstam, who has staked a claim to being the greatest player ever and is returning to competition from the only significant injury of her career.
What needs to happen this week at Bulle Rock is for the attention to turn back to golf. Here are the questions that should grab our attention: Can Ochoa get her first major? Is Sorenstam healthy again? Will Pressel add the McDonald's to the Kraft Nabisco Championship she won in April? What about Creamer, Lincicome, Cristie Kerr, Suzann Pettersen, Juli Inkster, Ai Miyazato, Jee Young Lee, Karrie Webb and a host of other great story lines? What about Se Ri Pak officially qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame when she hits her first tee shot this week?
And yes, what about Wie? Can she return to the form that saw her contend in three of the four LPGA majors last year? Are her problems physical, with the injured wrist; technical, with a swing that has become out of tempo and erratic; or emotional, with a shattered confidence after nearly four years without a victory in an event of any kind?
The best way for this week to end would be for Wie to play well and then announce she is joining the LPGA Tour. It would be not only the wise thing to do competitively but would also be a gesture that would give LPGA officials and sponsors such as McDonald's the respect they deserve. Most importantly, it would give the members of the LPGA -- the players -- the respect they have earned. They are a smart and generous lot. If Wie embraces the LPGA, the LPGA will embrace her. Right now an enormous gap exists between the two. But it's nothing that can't be bridged if Wie wants to make a commitment to women's golf.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.