After missed cut, Wie's future remains an uncertainty

HONOLULU -- Quick question: Which wunderkind phenom, with the cautious optimism and starry-eyed gaze of the world watching every move, began a PGA Tour career by failing to make the cut in seven straight tournaments?

If you guessed Michelle Wie, good job. You're correct. If you guessed Tiger Woods, good job. You're also correct.

Now, hold on. Before anyone accuses us of committing golf blasphemy by comparing a 17-year-old girl to one of the greatest players of all-time, that's not the point. Neither Wie nor any other top young golfer can, or should, be compared with the omnipotent Woods. That said, we can learn from the past, use his story to help understand what the present means and what the future may bring for Wie.

The differences between the career beginnings of Woods and Wie are profound. Woods was a three-time U.S. Amateur champion and top player on the junior circuit. Wie's lone national amateur victory came at the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, when she was 13. Woods was still an amateur when he missed the cut in his seventh PGA Tour event, the 1994 Western Open. Wie is very much a professional, already a millionaire 20 times over. Three years later, Woods captured a green jacket at The Masters, his first of 12 major championships (and counting). Wie will decidedly not win The Masters in three years, or ever, for that matter. She will never win a men's major -- never, in all likelihood, win a PGA Tour event.

This became evident once again this week, as Wie shot 78-76 to finish 140th in the 142-player field and miss the cut at her hometown Sony Open for the fourth straight year.

The result was another sad chapter in Wie's life story. It is, however, hardly the final chapter, perhaps still serving as the prologue to what her career may bring.

Wie's parents, B.J. and Bo, have been questioned for pushing her into this grand arena too soon. They first thrust their daughter into an international spotlight at age 14, when she initially played in this tournament, missing the cut by a mere stroke. Her journey has since regressed, as evidenced by the bottom-line summation of a scorecard, now resembling a sideshow for the main act.

"People have opinions," Wie said on Friday. "Let them have opinions. But that's not going to change what I want to do, because they don't know what I want and, you know, they don't know what I feel."

Is the criticism valid? Absolutely. But so, too, was the criticism for Earl Woods, when he claimed in 1996 that his son "will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity."

Earl is now revered as one of sport's legendary fathers, the benchmark for which parenting a phenom will always be compared. Back then, though, he was often ridiculed, dismissed as an obsessive father too intent on peddling the wares of his prodigy. And though Tiger may not have cured poverty in Third World nations or induced world peace, he has significantly changed the lives of many youths with his Tiger Woods Learning Center, while his eponymous foundation contributes to many charitable causes.

Of course, money can be the root of all evil, too. Nike, Sony and Omega are among the companies that have helped contribute to Wie's aforementioned windfall, giving her the sixth-highest income of any golfer during the past year, according to Golf Digest. Certainly, this passage into the arena of men's tournaments has as much to do with Wie's willingness to test her game against top competition as it does the almighty dollar. With each foray into such events, these companies get some bang for their buck and a pretty nice return on their investment.

She has become famous, a household name even in houses without golf on the TV screen, not so much for what she's done but simply for who she is. It's the same process by which other celebrities have invaded our consciousness. Think Paris Hilton in softspikes.

All of which provides significant background but fails to assuage our doubts about whether Wie will become everything she aspires to be, if not everything we aspire for her.

And that's OK. Thirteen years ago, when a kid named Tiger was missing the cut for a seventh consecutive time, we didn't know what the future would hold for him, either. Sometimes a little doubt isn't such a bad thing.

Wie may well be on her way to a brilliant, accomplished career. Or her hopes and dreams may fizzle and then gradually fade away. The only thing we know for sure is that right now, at age 17 and with seven missed PGA Tour cuts to her name, we still don't know a thing.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com