Michelle Wie, all of 15, understands fashion just fine. She can also hit the daylights out of the ball, and on a given day hold her own with the men on the PGA Tour. She also has marketers wondering if this 10th-grade girl is the next big thing in sports.
Wie's latest foray is the Sony Open, a tournament that boasts the likes of Ernie Els. But the two-time defending champion from South Africa is hardly the reason behind some of the largest galleries to pack Waialae Country Club. They are coming to watch Wie, playing on her home turf with the big boys.
'Michelle's creating excitement because she's breaking down barriers,' said Greg Nichols, general manager at Ko Olina Golf Club and a junior golf coach. 'She has created a huge wave for golf.'
College is still a ways off for Wie, but that hasn't stopped potential sponsors from scouting her the last few years. Among them is Greg Nared, a business affairs manager for Nike, who has been tracking her game and appeal to see whether she has the stuff of a good 'Nike athlete' like Tiger Woods, who brought droves of youngsters to the sport.
'She's good for the game because she could attract younger people and females,' said Nared, adding that Wie's Korean heritage has appeal in the Asian market.
When asked whether Wie could make the game 'sexier,' in the same way the Williams sisters upended the staid fashion world of tennis, Nared said, 'She's a beautiful girl and she wears clothes well.'
Poised and a statuesque 6 feet, Wie can easily pass for 25 in makeup and an evening gown, such as the sparkling red number she wore last May to a newcomer awards ceremony in Lisbon, Portugal.
On Thursday, a silver pair of chandelier earrings with green and gray-black stones dangled from her lobes. Her turquoise golf shirt, made of a silklike synthetic, was slightly flashier than those of other players in the tournament, but tastefully tucked in to white slacks. The PGA dress code requires long pants.
For all her fashion sense though, Wie does not figure to go the way of Anna Kournikova, whom many criticized for too much preening and not enough points on the women's pro tennis tour.
Wie struggled with her game Friday, shooting a 4-over 74 to finish 17 shots behind leader Shigeki Maruyama, and seven shots below the cut line.
Two years ago, she became the youngest winner of a USGA title for adults when she captured the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links. She also played in the final group of an LPGA major at 13, tying for ninth in the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship, and tied for fourth in the Nabisco last year.
Wie has played 17 times on the LPGA Tour. Had she not been an amateur, she would have earned enough in seven LPGA events last year to have finished in the top 50 on the money list.
Wie's gallery was the largest by far of any golfer Thursday during the windy first round. Her parents, B.J. and Bo Wie, family friends and thousands of locals outnumbered spectators following the tour's staple attractions, including Vijay Singh, the No. 1 player in the world, and Els, always a popular draw in Hawaii.
She was easy to find, and not just because of her height or dress - just look for the largest crowd, moving en masse to follow each shot, and a dozen photographers trying to capture her every move.
'We have to support our little girl,' said Faith Shimizu, who golfs regularly on Oahu. 'She's a youngster from Hawaii making a name for herself all over the world.'
The Punahou School student missed the cut in the Sony Open last year by one shot, shooting a 68 in the second round for the best score by a female on the PGA Tour. She talks often about playing in the LPGA and PGA simultaneously, and hopes to someday qualify for the Masters.
A West Oahu golf club and a local hospital charity are already benefiting from Wie's swift rise. Dozens of spectators wore 'Go Michelle' pins with the Ko Olina Golf Club logo on their visors. The Miracle Birdie Club was collecting a dollar for each birdie Wie made at the Sony Open to donate to Kapiolani Children's Miracle Network.
Despite finishing at 5-over-par 75 and making just one birdie, Wie showed she could compete.
'I was very impressed, all the different shots she was playing,' said Matt Davidson, who made his PGA Tour debut partnered with Wie. 'I didn't feel like I was playing with a 15-year-old girl. She's very polished. She has all the tools to be out here.'
It's not just Hawaii where she attracts the large galleries. At the U.S. Women's Open last year in Massachusetts, where Wie tied for 13th, as many people watched her as Annika Sorenstam, one of the world's most famous female athletes.
Wie draws strength from the attention. 'It was great having all the fans out here,' she said. 'They were supporting me and like, 'Oh, you can do it,' and, 'Good round.' It was great. It helped me.'
Erin Noel, whose boyfriend, Brett Wetterich, played alongside Wie on Thursday, is excited about seeing a girl in a PGA tournament.
'I'm totally into it,' she said. 'I think it's awesome because what is she, like, 15?'
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