Michelle Wie will turn pro sometime between now and Oct. 11 -- her 16th birthday -- perhaps as early as next week. In doing so, she will become the world's highest-paid female golfer.
According to sources involved in the negotiations who requested anonymity, Wie will sign endorsement deals with three companies (one believed to be Nike) worth an estimated $8 million. Adding in tournament appearance fees and other endorsements, the Hawaiian teen's compensation for her first year as a pro is expected to reach $10 million -- not counting what she wins on the course. She also will enlist the services of the William Morris Agency to secure further commercial endorsements and guide her pro career, shunning traditional golf-management companies and suggesting her long-term aspirations may involve transcending the game as much as dominating it.
The sources say Wie's first professional tournament will be the LPGA's Samsung World Championship, which begins two days after her birthday at Bighorn GC in Palm Desert, Calif., an important factor in the timing of her decision to turn pro. A source says she wants to declare as soon as possible, in order to minimize any distractions in her pro debut. "[The announcement] will happen before the end of the month," says one source familiar with the Wies' thinking. "To do it at the tournament would be a bit unsettling."
Wie's alignment with William Morris formalizes a relationship that began seven or eight years ago, according to an insider, although the agency has no prior experience in representing pro golfers and has struggled in previous partnerships with athletes. By signing with a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based image machine known for its roots in the entertainment industry -- Clint Eastwood, John Travolta and Heidi Klum are among William Morris' more notable clients -- Wie continues to defy any conventional mold. Of course, such iconoclastic vitality has become one of the Hawaiian teenager's strongest marketing assets. It gave her a claim to brushfire fame after beating grown men in state competitions when she was 13 years old and has been handily cultivated since, mostly through three head-turning performances on the PGA Tour, a pair of top-five finishes in LPGA majors and her run to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in July.
So here she comes: a 6-foot-1, Korean-American phenom with good looks, poise, serious length off the tee and a golf swing woven by the finest natural ingredients known to man. "You watch her against other women, the shots she has, it's no contest," says Jimmie Johnson, who spent 10 years caddieing for Nick Price and has worked several tournaments for Wie. "She knows how to play golf. I don't see any weaknesses in her game."
Add the oversized-dream quotient so common among those her age, her gender-blender capabilities and the constant patter of attention Wie seems to thrive on and it's no wonder the line of high-profile dealmakers stretched around the block before narrowing to three primary management-company suitors. No wonder Wie will sign an equipment/apparel contract with Nike worth about $5 million per year, according to knowledgeable sources (Nike officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment). No wonder William Morris hired a high-ranking executive away from the PGA Tour to navigate the blooming superstar around the trap doors of outrageous fortune.
"She will be the most recognized female athlete on the planet for the next 12 to 18 months," predicts Scott Seymour, vice president of Octagon, a firm whose own roster includes Mia Hamm, Anna Kournikova, Michael Phelps and John Elway. "Her marketability will never be higher than it is now. How much money she makes long-term will be determined by how well she plays."
Seymour's analysis offers a broad-canvas perspective on the most highly anticipated amateur-to-pro leap since Tiger Woods nine years ago. Wie's initial annual endorsement package is expected to be $8-10 million, at least $2.8 million more than any other female golfer, belying any talk that she is taking a risk by signing with William Morris. Although it still boasts one of the strongest client-celebrity lists in the business, the agency has lost tennis stars Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick in the last two years and recently was forced to deal with turbulence caused by the departures of actresses Halle Berry and Reese Witherspoon.
But William Morris had several positives in its portfolio that were presumably of interest to the Wies. Among the agency's six worldwide offices is one in Shanghai, providing contacts and expertise if (and when) Michelle tries to take on the Asian market. William Morris has a successful publishing division, one that is known for its book-to-screen deals. While Michelle has never publicly stated that she wants to be a celebrity, William Morris -- according to its sports-marketing mission statement -- "seeks to secure motion picture, television, commercial, licensing, broadcasting and sponsorship opportunities for sports clients wanting to expand and diversify their careers." (Most recently, William Morris helped another female sports client, Serena Williams, land roles in the movie "Beauty Shop" and the Showtime drama "Street Time.") Finally, William Morris counts the PGA Tour as one of its consulting clients, which may explain its most obvious course of action in the pursuit of Wie -- the recruitment of Ross Berlin, whose final day with the PGA Tour was Sept. 2.
A key lieutenant under commissioner Tim Finchem, Berlin's duties involved strengthening relationships with existing title sponsors, which patched up a weakness that surfaced in Camp Ponte Vedra in recent years. Asked about Wie's imminent signing and whether he has a working plan for his new client, Berlin responded, "I have no comment on that."
An agreement with golf novice William Morris probably was made easier because Wie's father, B.J., already had relationships with Nike and an Asian-based electronics company (probably Samsung) that will account for the bulk of Michelle's off-course income. "A lot of networking has gone on in the last two or three years," says swing coach David Leadbetter, whose tutorship has been a key to Wie's development. "It doesn't take a genius to consummate a deal at this stage. What's important is the follow-up." (If you're wondering about Michelle's amateur status, provided no deal is signed between a player and a management company and/or a potential sponsor while that player is still playing as an amateur, that player's amateur status is not violated. USGA executive director David Fay visited the Wies in Hawaii in 2004 and came away satisfied the family understood the rules and had committed no violations.)
Asked to elaborate on specifics involving his daughter's career direction, B.J. Wie told Golf World, "I will be unable to speak about any business-related matters until the completion of all deals." In addition to Nike and Samsung, those deals might possibly include one with an airline that would provide the Wies transportation to and from Hawaii while Michelle, a junior at the Punahou School in Honolulu, completes her education. "Michelle plans to graduate in 2007 and also plans to attend Stanford," B.J. Wie acknowledges.
William Morris, Octagon and IMG were said to be the finalists to represent Wie, each offering a different area of expertise in terms of client management: IMG the most experience and best connections within golf; Octagon the strongest bridge between pro sports and the corporate world; and William Morris the broadest opportunity outside of sports. Sources offer slightly different accounts of what B.J. wanted in terms of an agreement. At some point he realized -- through the advice of others or on his own -- that up-front, guaranteed money such as a "signing bonus" wasn't going to happen, at least from companies already representing star athletes and/or established pro golfers.
Because B.J. had done most of the legwork on the current deals, he asked the agencies to complete these contracts free of charge and accept a reduced commission on future agreements. IMG declined out of respect to its large roster of other golf clients, sources said, but William Morris, which tried unsuccessfully last year to sign LPGA star Natalie Gulbis, saw Wie as the type of high-profile, breakthrough talent worth a smaller return on its investment.
Although B.J.'s critics characterize him as a man with an inflexible business sense and a lack of long-term vision, there appears to be an end to his means. "He comes off as very meek and humble, but he's very tough in many respects," Leadbetter says. "He can get very animated at times." A longtime IMG client and perhaps the world's most recognizable golf instructor, Leadbetter says he offered gentle counsel to the Wies in regard to a management agency and doesn't sound surprised the family went in another direction. "There's more to it than writing up contracts," Leadbetter adds. "There's the business of servicing a player's needs all over the globe, and that can be very difficult. I told them IMG had tremendous experience in that area, but I wasn't adamant about it. They have their own agenda. They know what they want, and I think she'll be a success no matter who represents her."
Still, the issue of representation could not mean more than in the case of a teen prodigy with pronounced trailblazing tendencies. By all accounts, Wie has no intention of trying to play her way through the LPGA's Qualifying School this fall and is likely to suffice with six sponsor's exemptions on that tour in 2006. She cannot become an official member of the LPGA until she turns 18 (unless she petitions the tour for a special exemption), which, in Wie's case, would seem to have little effect on her competitive plans before then.
"That isn't a surprise," LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens says. "What I think is important for the LPGA is that Michelle can dream her dreams and pursue her dreams, and that she has options. Because she wants to do things a little differently, that's OK."
Wie also will accept invitations to men's events as the opportunity arises. Her first such chance is likely to be the Casio World Open in November, a regular stop on the Japan PGA Tour in which Wie will receive an appearance fee. Sources say Wie was invited to participate in the Skins Game, the popular ABC event held during Thanksgiving weekend, but declined because of its conflicting dates with the Casio.
There are a number of reasons why Wie could establish a major presence in the Far East. More than her ancestry or Hawaii's relative proximity, Japan's thriving golf economy has an unusual twist: Women's pro events regularly earn higher TV ratings than the men's. "The money coming out of Asia is unbelievable," Seymour says. "With Michelle's background and ethnicity, it's a wide-open frontier."
This landscape is sure to include the opportunity for substantial appearance fees, but it also provides Wie a more level field in terms of competing against men. The quality of play in the Far East isn't nearly as strong as that of the PGA Tour, meaning Wie can make big-league money while honing her skills in something akin to a minor-league setting.
That doesn't mean she won't command interest from any number of tournament directors in America -- Wie can accept up to seven such invitations on the PGA Tour. Her value to smaller events spiked in a positive direction after July's John Deere Classic, where Wie missed the cut by two strokes but took the Friday telecast well past its slotted airtime -- NBC Universal transferred live coverage from USA Network to CNBC as she attempted to qualify for the weekend. "What 15-year-old athlete changes television schedules?" Seymour says. "Not only that, but in the pro-am [draft], they're picking Michelle Wie over top [male] golfers in the field. That's a pretty big statement -- some of the guys [who play in pro-ams] are running international companies."
Such impact comes at a time when there is serious talk of schedule contraction on the PGA Tour, making Wie even more appealing to tournaments that might be on the endangered-species list. From a grass-roots standpoint (ticket sales, concessions, merchandise), Wie can move the needle like a Phil Mickelson or John Daly, and she generates more buzz than a nest of hornets. "When I go around town today, people are still talking about it," says John Deere tournament director Clair Peterson. "A lot of people came to our event who never would have otherwise."
If there is an issue that has dogged Wie throughout her ventures into the cross-gender arena, it is her lack of so-called credentials to compete at such a level. Her only triumph of renown came at the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, leading some to believe that the longer she goes without a victory, the less valuable her marketability becomes. "What Michelle needs to do is win," Bivens says. "I hope she puts herself in enough situations to do that. The newness can wear off. She is incredibly talented. I think winning should be one of Michelle's [top priorities] in the next two years or so."
Leadbetter, meanwhile, sees a work in progress: a teenager of superstar potential whose runner-up finish at the second LPGA major of 2005, the McDonald's LPGA Championship, is a harbinger, not a noose. "If you beat 148 other women, is that not winning?" Leadbetter says. "Just because you don't shoot the lowest score doesn't mean you haven't beaten an awful lot of people."
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World