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November 18, 2009

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Wie's victory gives LPGA a lift

MICHELLE Wie's breakthrough victory on the LPGA Tour has given the US women's circuit a timely boost after a season of economic struggle.

The Hawaiian's two-shot triumph at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico on Sunday came just 18 days after the Tour appointed a new commissioner to rebuild relationships with sponsors and players.

On October 28, former marketing executive Michael Whan succeeded Carolyn Bivens, who resigned in July after several LPGA players voiced concerns about the health of the tour in the face of the economic downturn.

At that point, the women's tour had lost seven tournaments since 2007, including all three in Hawaii, and numerous others are up for renewal at the end of the year.

In the 20-year-old Wie, however, the circuit has one of the biggest drawcards in the game, a gifted and long-hitting player who is beloved by television and sponsors alike.

The Korean-American turned professional at 15 under a mountain of expectation after signing endorsement deals believed to be worth US$10 million a year.

She joined the paid ranks in 2005 as golf's richest female and one of the highest paid athletes in women's sport. Swede Annika Sorenstam, the world No. 1 at the time, earned around US$6 million a year in endorsements.

Surprisingly, it took another four years before Wie finally visited the winner's circle, a trying period as she battled injuries, putting woes and criticism from many of her peers for her sporadic attempts to make the cut on the men's PGA Tour.

Golf's most trumpeted teenager since Tiger Woods, she came under intense media scrutiny as she strived to land a first tournament victory since the 2003 US women's amateur public links title aged 13.

Wie appeared to be micro-managed by her parents as one of the game's most marketable figures without ever justifying all the hype by winning.

To her credit, though, she earned her Tour card last year the hard way, at qualifying school, and was then selected for the Solheim Cup in August when she produced red-hot form on her debut in the biennial competition.

The youngest player on either side, she revelled in the team atmosphere and won 3-1/2 points from a possible four as the US beat Europe 16-12 in Illinois.

"For anybody who's said Michelle Wie can't play under pressure, I think they were proven wrong," US captain Beth Daniel told reporters. "She did everything, and more than we asked of her. She was like walking on air."

Invigorated and inspired by her Solheim Cup experience, Wie went on to record three top-four finishes in her next five LPGA Tour starts, including her win in Mexico.

"This year was a great learning experience for me," Wie said after sealing victory with a 3 under-par 69 at Guadalajara Country Club.

"There were so many ups, the Solheim Cup and just being able to play every single tournament out here.

"This tournament is the icing on the cake and hopefully life will be a lot better but I still have a lot of work to do, a lot to improve. It just feels so great right now."


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