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The whiz kids

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even among this country's hundreds of sports prodigies, Michelle Wie stands out.

Maybe it's her perfect golf swing. Maybe it's her physical stature and magnetic smile. Maybe it's because she does things that women's players, especially 16-year-old ones, aren't supposed to do.

Maryland golf fans are seeing it up close this weekend, just as they did last year. After three rounds of the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace, she is tied for third place, one stroke off the lead. Last year she finished second in the event.

When the teenager rolls her muscular shoulders and sends balls burning low and hard, 280 yards down the fairway, Wie seems like a descendant of Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain more than, say, Annika Sorenstam. In her presence, fans feel they might see something awesome.

Wie stands near the front of a current pack of sports prodigies that includes NBA star LeBron James, swimmer Michael Phelps, soccer's Freddy Adu and the NHL's Sidney Crosby. Like them, she has the world's attention at an age when most teens are just worried about getting a driver's license. And like them, she seems to have expanded the scope of her sport.

"She brings the possibility of doing what no one else has done," said Kurt Badenhausen, a senior editor at Forbes who studies sports business. "That's what Michelle Wie has. There are a lot of great women's golfers, but there aren't a lot who say they want to win the Masters."

Wie also may be something new because she's a female prodigy whose athletic and financial goals were calculated on a male scale. The Hawaiian grew up idolizing Tiger Woods, not Nancy Lopez. She keeps trying to qualify for men's tournaments. She has a Nike deal that most NBA players would envy.

On Monday in a sectional qualifier in Summit, N.J., Wie was in the running to become the first female to compete in a men's major - next week's U.S. Open - but came up short in the final holes.

But in many ways, Wie is no different from any other sports prodigy who receives millions of dollars (at $10 million a year, she ranks third among female athletes behind tennis' Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams) based on the whiff of promise. She has performed well in professional tournaments but hasn't won one.

Along with those who adore her, there are plenty of critics - more accomplished players who think she has gotten too much attention, writers who say she is more hype than substance, male golfers who say she has no business receiving exemptions to play in their tournaments.

Long line of success

The prodigy is a familiar species of sports hero in this country. Everyone has a favorite -17-year-old Bob Feller throwing 100-mph fastballs straight off the cornfields of Iowa; 16-year-old whippet Tracy Austin out-rallying Chris Evert at the U.S. Open; the 18-year-old James dunking on grown men.

Some young stars, such as James and Woods, have surpassed the most impossible expectations. Others, such as pitcher David Clyde and quarterback Todd Marinovich, failed just as spectacularly. Jennifer Capriati did it all, wowing crowds as a 13-year-old tennis pro, appearing bleary-eyed in a police mug shot at age 18 and returning to win three majors in her mid-20s.

For better or worse, fans, talent evaluators and shoe companies are always prospecting for the next big thing. The payoff for a hit such as Woods or James is so high that it can compensate for 100 misses.

Should someone so young be exposed to such adulation?

Tom McMillen was a 17-year-old from small-town Pennsylvania when he became the second high school athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970. That was fun. The hounding that the basketball star experienced during an epic Atlantic Coast Conference recruiting battle wasn't.

"It's a lot to put on a kid," the former University of Maryland star said. "It was a meltdown in my little town. And it would just be madness today."

McMillen, who went on to the NBA and Congress, said he applauds and cringes a little when he sees a precocious talent like Wie.

"It's a very distorting environment," he said. "To become that kind of athlete, you have to make a lot of sacrifices, and it's a lot harder now than it was. But if I had a kid who was 13 or 14 and had the talent, I certainly wouldn't tell them not to pursue it."

Don't hold back

Experts on sports parenting say talented kids can be hurt worse if they're held back.

"If someone is truly gifted in a particular area, whether it's the violin or shooting a basketball, they're going to be drawn to it in a very compelling way," said Dan Doyle, a longtime coach who's writing an encyclopedia on the parenting of athletes. "It's a big mistake to suppress that."

Doyle said Wie's parents seem to have raised her well, encouraging her gift without neglecting her schooling or emotional maturity. She's better off, he said, than kids without her talent or drive who are pushed to act like prodigies by overzealous parents.

Debbie Phelps, whose son, Michael, made the Olympics as a swimmer at age 15 and won six gold medals at age 19, said young athletes compete out of genuine passion and are often more poised than their older peers.

"I look back at those tapes of Michael in Sydney, and he looked so young," she said. "But when he stood up on the blocks, he took charge. Maybe not many kids are ready to do that, but when you have kids who can, I think we should applaud what they do."

Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, identified him as a possible Olympian at the age of 11. At that point, Bowman and Debbie Phelps began to steer Michael away from other sports.

"But he had to have a buy-in, too," Debbie Phelps said. "It was only going to go on as long as Michael was enjoying it."

She said she delineated early on that Bowman would handle all coaching, Phelps' agents would handle his public face, and she would provide as normal and stable a home as possible. She said she would recommend the same division of responsibilities for any prodigy.

Sometimes, she or another authority had to step in and, for example, turn down an invitation to a Halloween party at the Playboy mansion. But mostly, she said, Michael matured naturally.

She remembered a banquet they attended when he was 16. He was to give a speech before hundreds of young swimmers and parents, and she had no idea what he might say. She worried until he tossed on his blazer and opened his mouth.

"There was just this natural passion that he spoke from," she said. "Swimming was something that Michael loved, and he wanted people to know."

Moments like that told Phelps that her son kept a proper perspective on his unusual life and would handle either success or failure properly. When he was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in 2004 a few months after winning eight medals in Athens, Phelps preemptively called scores of journalists to apologize.

"Michael knew he needed to redeem himself or he'd be no more," his mother said. "I was disappointed in him, but I was proud of how he handled it. We have adults who can't take responsibility like that."

So Phelps cheers whenever she sees young athletes such as Wie or figure skater Kimmie Meissner doing great things on a public stage.

"I sit there with tears in my eyes," she said, "because I know how it feels for their families, and I know that the athletes love what they're doing and they're so poised and they work so hard."

McMillen had an outstanding career at Maryland and played in the Olympics and the NBA. But he didn't quite meet the hype that accompanied his high school exploits, and that was OK with him.

"What they say about you in high school doesn't mean much," he said. "I never thought of it as a real burden. I just asked myself internally if I was getting the most out of my talent, and that was enough for me."

McMillen said his parents helped him achieve that mentality. He has no regrets about having been young and famous.

The right timing

Wie said she's ready to handle the spotlight.

"I've been thinking about it for a really long time, when's the right time?" she said. "But it all came down to the last couple of months, really. I felt really ready. I felt mature enough. I felt really comfortable playing out there. I felt like it was the right time."

She learned the game from her mother, Bo, a former amateur champion, and her father, B.J., a University of Hawaii professor and 2-handicapper. She played her first pro event at age 12, when she was already a 6-footer hitting drives 300 yards. She announced she was turning professional a week before her 16th birthday.

As if to demonstrate she's more than a golfer, she signed with William Morris, an agency known for representing Hollywood stars. Like Woods, she faces expectations that she'll draw new demographics - young girls and Southeast Asians in her case - to fusty old golf. Ten years into Woods' career, his power to attract live crowds and television audiences is unquestioned. But his presence hasn't - as some thought it might - attracted significantly more minorities to play golf.

Badenhausen, the Forbes editor, predicted the same for Wie.

"She has the potential to bring a ton of people to pay attention to the sport," he said, "but not necessarily to drive people to play."

Wie always has come across as a normal teenager off the golf course. She chews gum during interviews, talks about the mall, seems embarrassed by her parents and acknowledges growing bored easily. There have been no signs she's cracking under the strain of so much attention.

At some point, she will have to win to maintain her profile. Nike has essentially bet that she'll be the world's best female golfer by 2012.

"She's only 16, and she's not playing a full-time schedule," Badenhausen said. "As long as she continues to compete near the top, I don't think she has to break through and win for at least two or three years."

Kay Cockerill, a former LPGA player and commentator for the Golf Channel, agreed.

"I can excuse anything she does now because she's 16 and playing the toughest competition," the analyst said. "But at some point, her sponsors will want to see wins. And she isn't going to want to play just to place well."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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