From a hotel suite in Honolulu overlooking the golf course where Michelle Wie first showed her awesome potential, she looked at newspaper photos from various stages of her youth and realized those days were behind her.

She was 15 and had just turned pro.

Within a year, her income approached $20 million, more than any other female golfer.

“I know I have to win. That’s my priority now,” Wie said that day. “They all expect me to do better and work harder.”

That was four years ago, spanning 42 starts on the LPGA Tour. Those expectations took a long time to fulfill.

Her face was flush with celebration and relief Sunday when Wie blasted out of a bunker to tap-in range for a two-shot victory in Mexico. She thrust her arms in the air, covered her mouth and before long, she finally tasted that LPGA tradition for first-time winners by getting showered with beer.

It was clear an enormous burden had been lifted.

Wie created those expectations by shooting 68 on the PGA Tour at age 14, by having at least a share of the lead on the back nine of three major championships when she was 16, by coming within nine holes of qualifying for the U.S. Open and by developing shots that few other women were capable of hitting.

“For sure, it’s definitely off my back,” said Wie, now 20 and in her third year at Stanford. “I think that hopefully, life will be a lot better. But I still have a lot of work to do. I still have a lot to improve. It just feels so great right now.”

But as one burden is lifted, another is soon to arrive.

The timing could not have been better for the LPGA Tour, which is starved for attention and struggling to climb out of an economic morass that likely will lead to the fewest tournaments it has had in years.

The tour finally got rid of its commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, and replaced her with Michael Whan, who is to be introduced in Houston on Wednesday and takes over at the start of 2010.

The LPGA needs star power, and no other player can move the needle like Wie.

She was attracting the largest crowds even when Annika Sorenstam was still playing and winning majors.

Paula Creamer was 18 and had not gone through high school graduation when she captured her first LPGA Tour victory. Morgan Pressel was 18 when she became the youngest major champion in LPGA Tour history. Neither generated as much attention as Wie winning for the first time in Mexico at a tournament that was shown on tape delay.

Wie won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, named after the No. 1 player in women’s golf. Yet not even Ochoa could not carry the tour. When she was going for a record-tying fifth straight victory last year in Oklahoma, it received only local coverage. The Golf Channel did not send a crew to document her winning streak.

Wie has the kind of appeal not seen since Nancy Lopez – but only if she keeps winning.

Clearly, her impact on women’s golf would have been far greater had Wie won much earlier. She attracted attention because of her power and her youth, and she only has one of those left.

Even now, Wie has only one victory. Ochoa remains the No. 1 player, while Jiyai Shin has shown to be the best this year, on the verge of becoming the first player since Lopez in 1978 to win player of the year and rookie of the year in the same season. Wie played 18 times this year and is not among the top 10 on the LPGA money list.

To predict greatness after one victory is tantamount to the predictions she faced when she first turned pro.

Wie winning can only help, although the LPGA Tour still faces a mighty struggle. Sponsorship dollars remain tough to find and the tour does not have a network TV deal. The Golf Channel televises LPGA events on a tape-delay basis. And while Wie played a full schedule this year, she also remains devoted to her education – and the Cardinal football team – at Stanford.

She is still only 20, but already has been through more than most players on the LPGA Tour.

Wie lost goodwill in some golf circles by trying to compete against the men before she had proved herself on the LPGA Tour. She was 0-for-7 trying to make the cut on the PGA Tour, although it has been almost three years since she last tried.

She endured more criticism from the media than any other female golfer in 2007 while trying to play through an injury. The worst of it came after she withdrew from Sorenstam’s tournament while on the verge of shooting 88 — which would have banned for from playing for a year — only to show up two days later at Bulle Rock to prepare for a major.

Most impressive about Wie was that through it all, she never lashed out at any of her critics. She earned respect by going through LPGA Q-school last year and by leading the United States to victory in the Solheim Cup.

And now — finally — she’s a winner.

Among her immediate plans were “definitely bask in the glory.”

The LPGA Tour surely will try to capitalize on this moment, as it should, although the tour should be mindful of the four years that preceded Wie’s victory, and the four years before that when she was girl among men.

Keep the expectations reasonable.

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