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The Michelle Wie phenomenon: Blame the media - but only partially

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Michelle Wie

Sometimes I feel sorry for Michelle Wie.

Wait, what the hell am I saying? How is it possible to feel sorry for someone who's a multi-millionaire at the age of 16? At that age I wasn't even a multi-dollar teenager. I was a bus boy at the Alhambra Dinner Theater trying to scrape together enough spare change to buy surfboard wax.

Whenever I start to feel sorry for Wie, that $10 million Nike endorsement deal taps me on the shoulder, grinning like a game-show host.

So strike that. I don't exactly feel sorry for her. But I can understand the kind of pressure she must feel, even if she denies feeling it.

Rich and polarizing

She's 16 years old, rich as King Midas and amazingly talented. As a public figure, she should be in a place few young men or women have been before.

But she isn't. Because along with that talent, she has something else, something that has made her the most polarizing figure in golf, if not all of sports. Where Wie is concerned, you either love her or hate her. There's not much middle ground.

Why? Is it her personality? No, can't be. She's a typical 16-year-old, really, with a vocabulary revolving around the all-purpose word "awesome," a penchant for mall shopping and a jewelry jones.

Is it just the usual backlash most celebrities who reach the zenith of riches and fame suffer at one time or another? That's part of it, certainly, but only part.

Is it because she has taken a different road to her current, stratospheric place in the cultural pantheon? Yes, that must be part of it as well. Golf is a conservative, buttoned-down sport and its rules, even the unwritten ones, must be followed lock-step.

By bypassing the usual amateur route, by insisting that she is gifted enough to play against the men even when she has never won against the women, she has angered and alienated a huge slice of the sporting public. America wants you to earn your stripes.

If you ask her foaming fans, the Wie Warriors and Wannabes, they will tell you the great divide is caused mainly by the media. The media has built up unrealistic expectations; other players are jealous of the attention Wie gets; the media ask Wie and her colleagues leading questions trying to incite controversy.

Is media really to blame?

Now, I realize the media is the catch-all villain for our times, but is there any truth in this particular accusation? The answer is an equivocal yes.

Imagine if Wie had never received any media attention. I know, it's almost impossible, but try. Imagine Wie as just another excellent young golfer with potential.

First of all, she would not be filthy rich. Image-conscious corporations don't hand out $50 million to unknowns, no matter how talented.

Second of all, Wie would not be getting all these sponsor exemptions from tournaments which, in turn, would not be reaping the profits from her fame. All those young girls who worship Wie would be crowding the malls instead of the driving ranges. The Wie Warriors and her critics would not be trading personal insults on blogs everywhere.

She would be a blip on the sports and cultural radar screens. And maybe she would have won a tournament by now, without having to battle both her rivals and the intense scrutiny.

So yes, the media is part of it - a big part. But would the media be all over Wie if not for the interest of the fans?

No. The media and those they write and broadcast for have a complicated relationship that is both symbiotic and, at times, destructive. It seems that interest generated by media attention sometimes reaches a tipping point - and then it becomes something else altogether, a runaway train that nobody can control.

So how much of all this - the ridiculously high expectations for a 16-year-old, the jealousy and bitterness, the star treatment many find loathsome - is Wie's fault?

That's where my sympathy comes in. Michelle Wie seems to be a typical teenager, caught between a typically unsophisticated - innocent, if you like - emotional worldview and freakish physical ability.

Meltdown or coronation?

The problem is that the rewards she's garnered for her physical potential haven't yet been justified, in many minds. She has shown flashes of brilliance and even consistency in the big tournaments, but she has yet to win anything as a professional. That's another thing America insists upon - you have to be a winner to be this big.

Did she ask for all this? Yes, in a relatively innocent way. Who in her right mind would turn down all that money? But her insistence, innocent though it may be, on trying to make history when there are others who, at the moment, have more legitimate claims to pursue that history has put her in this precarious position.

Part of our fascination with Wie seems to be that she has, knowingly or not, set herself up for either a huge, humiliating letdown or a glorious coronation. And no one else - not even the media - can take responsibility for that.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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