Michelle Wie and Star Power
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 31, 2006

MICHELLE WIE is helping women’s golf make the same kind of quantum leap that Arnold Palmer brought to the men’s version of the sport, but her fellow competitors can’t see that. They continually trash her in their interviews.

To her credit, Wie disregards that. “I’m used to people judging me without knowing me,” she said the other day. “I’m in high school.”

Touche.

So far, the most intriguing aspect of Wie’s game is her potential. She has yet to win a tournament, and some observers think the best young golfers on the LPGA tour are Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.

But Wie has power unknown to the women’s tour, from the leverage she gets from her height, at least six feet. She hasn’t fully developed her game because she is still in high school and plays in a limited number of tournaments. But she definitely has star power, with huge galleries following her, and it is star power that boosts sports, especially the individual ones.

I was just starting my newspaper career when Palmer came along, and I remember the impact he had. Galleries loved Arnie from the moment he made his late charge to win the U. S. Open at Cherry Hills.

To say that Palmer was bold is understating it: He always went for the pin, took the dangerous approach. His habit of hitching up his pants just before he set up for his shot became his trademark.

There had been good athletes among golfers before – Ellsworth Vines won the U. S. Open in both tennis and golf – but none who looked more like an athlete than Palmer. He looked as if he could step right in and play defensive back for an NFL team.

He wasn’t the best golfer of his generation; the younger Jack Nicklaus soon showed that he was. But it took years for galleries to warm to Nicklaus, and he was even the villain early on – because he beat Palmer.

The 1966 U. S. Open at the Olympic Club was the end of Palmer as a major force; he never again won a major tournament after blowing a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to go.

That didn’t matter to “Arnie’s Army”, who followed him faithfully. It wasn’t a one-way street. Palmer always talked with his followers and patiently signed autographs after a round. He was equally cooperative with the media, even under trying circumstances. During that 1966 Open, he was being interviewed in the locker room by a group of writers. Ed Schoenfeld, an aggressive reporter who always had a cigar in his mouth, was boring forward when Palmer suddenly staggered back, brushing cigar ashes off his nose. But he never stopped talking.

Tiger Woods is the present-day version of Palmer, with huge galleries following him. He’s not only the best golfer on the tour but the most charismatic. At any tournament, the question is always, “Where’s Tiger?” – which can refer to his spot on the leader board or location on the course. Every time he’s in a tournament, the media coverage is concentrated on Tiger.

I haven’t been to many golf tournaments recently, but I got a taste of the Tiger phenomenon in the 2000 U. S. Open at Pebble Beach. My wife and I were having lunch at the Chronicle hospitality tent, on a small rise at the side of the sixth green, when we saw this huge horde of people approaching. It was Tiger’s gallery, of course.

And at the front was Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, who was carefully accompanying Tiger’s mother down the fairway.

EVEN IN the team sports, a charismatic athlete can make a huge difference.

When baseball was rocked by the Black Sox scandal – and banning of the players in 1920 – it recovered because of the unprecedented power hitting of Babe Ruth.

Ruth’s records have since been erased (even his pitching record of most consecutive scoreless innings in a World Series) but nobody had seen anything like him when he started. The season home run record was 27 before Ruth started his onslaught, the career home run record just 136. Ruth was hitting more home runs than entire teams. When he hit 54 home runs in 1920, the second most prolific homer hitter in baseball was George Sisler, with 19.

Not coincidentally, the Yankees had their first plus-million attendance that year, almost 1.3 million, though they finished third. Other teams didn’t benefit quite so directly, but everywhere in the league, attendance rose as people came out to see the Babe.

There are many reasons for the rise of pro football, but Joe Namath played a very important role by himself.

When the New York Jets signed Namath to a $400,000 contract, it made news everywhere. Soon, the AFL had a good TV contract, which made it a viable league and set the stage for eventual merger with the NFL.

And, of course, Namath’s “guarantee” of a Super Bowl win – and the fact that the Jets did indeed upset the 19-point favorite Baltimore Colts – changed the whole pattern of the sport. “Broadway Joe” became a mythic figure, a star quarterback in the media capitol of the country. Injuries shortened his career, but Namath still made the Hall of Fame, as much for his affect on the game as his accomplishments.

The NBA has been geared to players with that special star quality since George Mikan (a famous message board at Madison Square Garden once advertised “George Mikan vs. the New York Knicks), through Wilt, Oscar, Elgin, through the Bird-Magic rivalry, to Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest ever.

BUT, THE charismatic athlete still has the best chance to make an impact in the individual sports.

Palmer got men’s golf started on a pattern that has pushed it far ahead of tennis in popularity, but the reverse is true in the women’s sports, where tennis has long been more popular than golf – because of Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” brought immense attention to her sport. With other pioneers of the time – Rosie Casals, Francoise Durr, among others – she tirelessly promoted her sport.

Now, women’s golf has the same opportunity, with its good young players but especially with Wie. Though Wie has played in men’s events, I think she needs to concentrate first on winning a women’s event; it wouldn’t help her or her sport to become the Anna Kournikova of golf. She got off to a good start yesterday with a 66 in the opening round of the Kraft Nabisco tournament, though she trailed by four strokes because Lorena Ochoa shot an incredible 62.

In the meantime, Wie’s fellow competitors should concentrate on their golf, instead of trash talking. Michelle Wie could be the catalyst for making them all a lot of money, just as Arnold Palmer did 40 years ago for the men. Star power makes the difference.


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