News & Politics

Twisting the American Dream

Is the story of 16-year-old professional golfer Michelle Wie -- who made her first million before she could drive a car -- a success story or a cautionary tale?
Right now, in cities as big as Los Angeles and in towns as small and peaceful as Harmony, Rhode Island, fathers are buying their pre-teenage daughters new bags of golf clubs. Throw in a box of shiny white Titleists, a dozen tees, and plaid knickers and the set is complete.

Barbie? Who has time for Barbie? Barbie can't drive a golf ball 290 yards, or hit a perfect seven-iron to lay up a few inches from the cup.

Barbie can't make your kid a millionaire, either.

Golf is something dads can now share with daughters because last month Michelle Wie turned pro at the ripe age of 15 (she turned 16 a week later). Ripe, because Wie has been in the public's eye for some time (way back before junior high school).

But now she is a professional. Legitimate. And, oh so rich.

As quick as the word "professional" could roll off her tongue, Wie was rolling in millions of dollars in endorsement deals. Her deal with Nike was reported to be worth close to $5 million per year. And Sony was quick to follow. If you listen attentively you can hear a 'ca-ching' sound hovering over Wie when she trolls down the fairway after launching one of her mammoth drives.

No question, Wie is worth every nickel. She's an attractive young girl with a beaming smile, who doesn't act like a kid, but rather a true professional. And, unlike many of today's young female athletes that sell sex more than ability, Wie has proven to be as good as advertised. As an "amateur," she made the cut in 20 of 24 Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) events. The Hawaiian-born Wie also has flirted with making the cut on the men's tour, something few doubt she will do in the near future. In time, Wie is expected to become the next Babe Didrikson Zaharias; the woman of this era that can play with the big boys for the big money. Annika Sorenstam, golf's most dominant female competitor for some time, has been unable to climb that obstacle.

Wie is the American Dream, albeit a twisted one. Unlike the Charlie Kanes of the world, she'll earn her millions and well before most of the country's self-made men can say they did. But let's not forget, she's still only a kid, still only a 16 year old, who, like most 16 year olds, should be thinking about school dances and driving lessons. Wie doesn't need driving lessons, she gives them -- to everyone watching her graceful swing. And dances? She may just wind up dancing on the 18th green of the Samsung World Championship this Sunday if she wins her first pro tournament.

But, even for the oddly mature Wie, all of this is too much, too soon.

For Wie, childhood is a golfing range with an endless bucket of balls to hit. Her parents, B.J. and Bo, probably are good ones (can we really say?) but they have allowed their daughter to skip past too many stages in life, all for the chase of championship trophies and endorsement dollars. Sure, Wie also has a chance to re-write history, to do something no other woman has done -- erase the thick line that separates men from women in the golfing world -- but did she need to forgo her childhood to do so? Tiger Woods spent a few years at Stanford and then turned professional.

And perhaps the most important question of all: what if she fails? As good as she is, when she was a 15-year-old amateur her success was cute and her off-days were accepted. Now she has entered the same realm as Woods, who is expected to win every tournament he participates in. And outside of a field of dozens of other professional women gunning for her, Wie is battling chauvinists who don't want to see a woman play golf with men. That's a lot of pressure for any star athlete to handle. For a 16-year-old on the cusp of superstardom, it's an unthinkable amount of pressure.

Can Wie handle all of that at this age? I can't answer that question, and I doubt neither can B.J. or Bo. The only one who can is Michelle Wie a dozen or so years from now when she'll be old enough to reflect on what all the added exposure and an early start did for her at 16 instead of, say, 18 or 20. But by then it'll be too late.

And so it brings us back to all of those American dads with big dreams for their daughters. That's the big picture here. In America, one kid gets to live the dream, while hundreds of thousands of other kids get to suffer through golf lessons and play nine holes on crummy courses, all for the chance to be the next Michelle Wie. And many of those kids won't like golf or even know who Michelle Wie is.

Maybe what should be done is to tell our children not to grow up too fast. Not to be in a hurry. Sure, go out and hit as many golf balls as you'd like, but be sure to save time for being a kid. As parents, we need to tell our kids that their first responsibility is to lack responsibility, to make mistakes and have fun, and not to take life so seriously.

And the leagues, they can help, too. The National Football League requires that its athletes wait until three years after their high school graduation before entering pro football. Pro baseball and basketball open their doors to high school graduates but not 16-year-olds.

If parents taught patience and the leagues had stricter entry policies, then kids could be kids and Barbie could go back in style.
Mike Beacom is a sports writer based in Wisconsin.
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