Child actors are invariably distinguished by being cute as a button, being naturals at acting and having an aggressive parent. Few of them can sustain their stardom as they grow up. Athletic prodigies, however, often continue succeeding smoothly into adulthood — look no further than LeBron James or Bryce Harper.
Since girls mature earlier than boys, many female athletes become very good very early and then stay the course. This goes right on back to Suzanne Lenglen and Sonja Henie, the first famous female athletes of almost a century ago — teenage champions who kept dominating their sports. (Both, by the way, had pushy fathers, too.)
This brings us to Michelle Wie, who appeared to be following more in the path of child actor than child athlete. She was so good so young, so tall, and directed by her father, she was something of a sideshow — a young girl competing against grown men.
But then Wie went into an eclipse, abetted by the fact that she became a full-time student at Stanford. All sorts of golfers passed her, and a young American named Lexi Thompson became, in effect, what Wie was supposed to have been. It was Thompson who won her first LPGA tournament at 16 and who won her first major this year while still only 19.
And Wie? She was 11th in the world at just 17, but as recently as last year she was ranked 61st. Then suddenly, at age 24, she has burst forth as the woman the child was supposed to grow up to be. Sixth in the world, she won her first major three weeks ago — the U.S. Open. So, those embers of early fame are glowing again, and with the apparent age-induced decline of Serena Williams, Wie may well now be the world's best-known female athlete.
Meanwhile, men's golf remains desperate to produce any young champion with sustained star power. Apparently the PGA will be depending on Tiger Woods for its hype even when he's 60 years old and playing best-ball foursomes down at the country club. Absent the toothless Tiger, Wie may now be the best-known golfer in the world.
Click on the audio link above to hear Frank Deford's commentary.