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Wie: Being pro adds incentive

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PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Nothing has changed, Michelle Wie insists, as she prepares to play her first tournament as a pro.

Nothing except she turned 16 Tuesday. Or that she receives her driver's license next week, perhaps accompanied by a car from her parents. ("Hint, hint," she said toward B.J. and Bo in the back row.) Or that she appears as a black-suited businesswoman on Fortune magazine's recent cover with the headline "Move over, Tiger." Or that she's teeing it up this week in the Samsung World Championship against 19 established LPGA players who would enjoy making her first paycheck barely enough to buy a pair of her favorite hoop earrings.

Other than that ...

Oh, and she recently received her first tax form.

"It's not something you should be excited about, but it was pretty cool for me," she said.

Smiling, laughing, wearing Nike gear head-to-toe, gold bracelets and long turquoise earrings, Wie seemed relaxed and almost relieved to have left the amateur ranks, though she understands the stakes are higher now.

"I don't really see it as pressure. I see it as incentive to practice harder," Wie said. "Obviously I want to win. I've been working really hard on that. I just want to have fun. I'm going to cherish all the parts of this tournament and try to play as hard as I can."

The Samsung World Championship appears an ideal launching pad for Wie's pro career. She's guaranteed a paycheck this week in the no-cut, 20-player event and could earn $212,000 for winning or $10,624 for finishing last. Wie tied for 13th as an amateur at Bighorn Golf Club last year and would have collected about $15,000.

Wie certainly has the experience to contend. The Samsung marks her 25th appearance on the LPGA tour since she began competing against pros as a 12-year-old in 2002.

Wie's last appearance was in the Weetabix Women's British Open in July. She tied for third at 10 under par after opening with a 3-over 75. In seven LPGA tour events, she finished second three times, including runner-up to Annika Sorenstam in the season's second major, the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

She'll be thrust into the spotlight again Thursday. Wie has been paired with Cristie Kerr in the penultimate group ahead of defending champion Sorenstam and Paula Creamer.

"She's got to be a little nervous," said David Leadbetter, her coach. "The disadvantage she'll have is that the other women have been playing on a regular basis and she hasn't had a tournament in a while. She's practiced a lot, but that's never the same as a competitive tournament."

The Samsung is the last of eight LPGA tournaments Wie will play this year. Her next two appearances are scheduled to be against the men: the Casio World Open (Nov. 24-27), a Japan Tour event in Tokyo on Nov. 24-27, and the Sony Open, a PGA Tour event in January near her Honolulu home that she has played the last two years.

Wie plans to accept a couple of other invitations to PGA Tour events (she can take up to seven exemptions) but has yet to set her schedule for next year. She also hopes to perhaps try PGA Tour qualifying school in an effort to play against men on a regular basis.

"I just love playing PGA Tour events. They are so much fun," she said. "But I realize I have to gain a little more distance. It's going to be my goal to be able to make the cut, to be able to compete and to one day play in The Masters. Those are still my dreams.

"But I have other goals, too. I'm going to focus on winning tournaments. That's going to be my major focus over the next couple years."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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