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PALM DESERT, Calif. -- The large, colorful banners hang at the entrance to Bighorn Golf Club, heralding a sort of pecking order for the elite field in the Samsung World Championship.
Defending champion Annika Sorenstam rightfully looms first, followed by last year's runner-up, Grace Park. Next in line: a 16-year-old prodigy who makes her professional debut today (The Golf Channel, 5 p.m. ET) yet who's already replaced Sorenstam as the highest-paid female golfer.
Michelle Wie is not a member of the LPGA and has said she won't try to join until reaching the minimum age of 18 in 2007. She has endorsement deals with Nike and Sony that pay her as much as $10million, and she broke ranks with other star female and male golfers by signing with the William Morris Agency instead of, say, IMG.
Along with large galleries, Wie can expect some jealousy and resentment on the LPGA tour as she begins to play for pay.
"No gossip yet, sorry," says Paula Creamer, the 19-year-old who didn't make her debut with the fanfare of Wie but faced rookie pressures as she broke through with two victories this season and ascended to second on the money list behind Sorenstam.
"To me it feels like Michelle has been a pro for a long time," Creamer adds. "But it's different than being an amateur golfer. There is just that extra little pressure that gets put on you."
Critics point out Wie has only one significant victory on her resume, the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, and needs to validate herself by winning.
On the other side, players generally view Wie as a boon to the LPGA tour in its fight for more sponsors, higher purses and greater exposure.
"Not only is there not any jealousy, there is a lot of cheering and 'Go, girl, go,'" LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens says. "It's a rising tide that lifts all boats."
Sorenstam agrees and downplays talk of animosity toward Wie because of her contracts.
"I'm glad Michelle can get it," she says. "I'm just happy to be a part of it. I know what I have achieved. I know the records I have set, and nobody can take those away. ...
"The bottom line is I'm a competitor. I will have my game do the talking."
Wie can avoid difficulty with tour pros, Dottie Pepper says, by fulfilling required responsibilities such as interviews, corporate events and LPGA promotions.
"Other players find out if you're not doing that sort of stuff," says Pepper, an NBC and Golf Channel analyst and former LPGA player. "You don't want to take the 'I'm special' attitude."
So far, Wie has spent little if any time in locker rooms and usually arrives at the course ready to go from parking lot to practice range. "The locker room might be a good place to go," Pepper suggests.
"There are going to be some people against me," Wie says. "There's not going to be everyone, that's for me. ... They have the right to say their opinions."
*For interactive course maps and in-progress scores from this week's events, go to golf.usatoday.com
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