Spotlight Moves from Annika to Wie

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PALM DESERT, Calif. -- The practice range at Bighorn was empty early in the afternoon, except for a solitary figure on the far left end. Annika Sorenstam was all alone, working her way through wedges and short irons as her caddie caught each shot with a baseball glove, rarely moving.
 
There were no fans, no cameras, no swing coaches, no agents, no hype.
 
Only four months ago, the LPGA Tour was all about Sorenstam and her quest for the Grand Slam. Now, even the best player in women's golf is swallowed up in the shadow cast by Michelle Wie.
 
The 16-year-old from Hawaii will make her professional debut when the Samsung World Championship begins Thursday, an event that has attracted media from all over the world and turned the LPGA into the ``Michelle Wie Show.''
 
For the last three years, LPGA players have rarely made it through an interview without getting asked something about Sorenstam. It only took three questions Wednesday before the 35-year-old Swede -- with nine majors, a career Grand Slam and a spot in the Hall of Fame -- was asked about a high school junior.
 
``It doesn't bother me,'' Sorenstam said. ``I think it's great we're getting more attention. If I couldn't get the attention, I'm glad Michelle can get it. I'm just happy to be a part of it. I know what I've achieved. I know the records that I have set, and nobody can take those away.''
 
Wie is hardly a newcomer, having played 24 times on the LPGA Tour alone since she was 12. She has made her last 16 cuts on the LPGA, and her three runner-up finishes this year include the LPGA Championship.
 
Expectations are entirely different now.
 
``It's a lot easier to play when you've got an 'a' by your name,'' said Juli Inkster, referring to how amateurs are denoted on the leaderboard. ``She had pressure as an amateur, too. When you have to count everything, it can take a little different feeling.''
 
Wie already has endorsements that are said to be worth $10 million a year, although some industry insiders think the numbers are slightly inflated. Either way, she makes more endorsement money than anyone, adding to the anticipation of how she will perform as a part-time pro.
 
Wie believes she is ready.
 
``I was practicing really hard playing for $5 incentives,'' Wie said. ``My dad would give me $5 if I made a birdie putt, and stuff like that. But my stakes are going to be a lot higher right now, so I'm practicing really hard. I don't really see it as pressure, I see it as incentive to practice harder.''
 
There have been comparisons to Tiger Woods because of their lucrative deals, and the buzz each generated when they turned professional.
 
Oddly enough, Ernie Els had a role in both decisions.
 
Els and Woods were in the clubhouse after the 1996 British Open when Woods asked him about turning pro.
 
``I told him he was good enough to turn pro,'' Els once said. ``He did, and the rest is history.''
 
Wie and Els played practice rounds at the Sony Open the last two years and are linked by nicknames -- the Big Easy and the Big Wiesy, the latter hung on the 6-footer from Hawaii by Tom Lehman, who said Wie's long, fluid swing reminded him of Els.
 
Two months ago, Wie was practicing in August with swing coach David Leadbetter when they called to ask Els' opinion about her future.
 
``Ernie told her there was no need to wait, as he thought she was ready to turn pro,'' Liezl Els said in an e-mail Wednesday. ``He spoke mostly to Michelle, but also had a word with her dad, whom he told the same thing.''
 
History awaits, and no one is sure how it will unfold.
 
For now, no one can deny the talent and the excitement surrounding it.
 
``Michelle is good for golf, just as Tiger was good for golf,'' LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens said. ``There are a lot of people who may not follow golf otherwise, but tune in when you've got Michelle or Tiger out there.''
 
B.J. Wie has said his daughter will not challenge the LPGA requirement that members be 18 years old. And while he says her focus will initially be on the LPGA Tour, the ultimate dream is to get her PGA Tour card.
 
Wie is trying to add 10 percent to her length, so the distance she carries her tee shot increases from 260 yards to 285 yards, which the father believes will allow her to compete against the men.
 
For now, Wie has to prove herself against her own gender.
 
The Samsung World Championship has only 18 players and no cut, the field determined by major champions and top players from the money list. Wie was given an exemption, which knocked Inkster out of the field. Not only that, Wie has signed up Inkster's caddie, Greg Johnston.
 
Wie tees off in the second-to-last group with Cristie Kerr, while Annika Sorenstam and Solheim Cup star Paula Creamer will be in the final group Thursday at Bighorn.
 
Creamer often gets lost in the talk over the youth movement, but she is more focused on someday overtaking Sorenstam at No. 1 in women's golf.
 
Creamer and Wie were on the Curtis Cup last year and by all appearances, they got along well.
 
``We're very good friends,'' Creamer said. ``A lot of people misjudge her. She's younger than everyone. But if she's bringing more attention to women's golf and more money with higher purses, that's great for me.''
 
Sorenstam, secure in her achievement and notoriety, also doesn't seem troubled by the extra attention.
 
She was content to practice alone Tuesday afternoon, and it was a phenomenal display. Her caddie, Terry McNamara, stood 85 yards away to catch soft sand wedges. He eventually moved back to about 150 yards when Sorenstam went with 8-iron, and on three consecutive shots, he stayed in the same spot.
 
Too bad no one was around to see it.
 
Related Links:
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