By  on February 16, 2006

NEW YORK — Polo Ralph Lauren is upping the stakes in sports sponsorship by signing 17-year-old golfer Morgan Pressel, the first time the fashion giant has endorsed an American female athlete. Terms of the three-year deal were not disclosed.

Pressel who makes her professional debut today on the LPGA Tour and was number one on the U.S. Women's Amateur tour last year, will wear Polo apparel in all of her matches, as well as off the course. She also will be featured in the company's spring golf marketing campaign, including print and online components, which kicks off in April. Her full assortment of looks from the Polo Ralph Lauren Golf collection includes mesh shirts, shorts and skorts in colors such as blue and white.

"Morgan is vibrant, talented and embodies the future of golf," David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and communications, said on Wednesday. "Ralph Lauren has been a leader in the world of golf design for decades and we have worked closely with the sport's most influential athletes."

Polo sponsors a handful of male golfers, including Tom Watson, and had a deal with Swedish female golfer Carin Koch in 2001 and 2002.

The company declined to reveal sales in its golf division, but it is clearly a growing focus for the firm, which posted overall revenues of $2.77 billion in the nine-month period ended Dec. 31. As it seeks to build its business in new areas, Polo has been stepping up its athletic-related activities. Last year, it became the title apparel sponsor for tennis' U.S. Open with a multimillion-dollar, four-year contract, under which it provides apparel and footwear for the judges, umpires and ball boys and girls. Under another sponsorship deal, Polo provides uniforms for Aspen Snowmass ski area instructors, patrollers and lift operators.

While still largely unknown outside of the golf community, Pressel has emerged as a player to watch. A senior at St. Andrew's School near Boca Raton, Fla., Pressel has been playing golf since she was eight years old and set a record in 2001 as the youngest player to ever qualify for a U.S. Women's Open event at the age of 12. Last year, she was a runner-up in the U.S. Women's Open, and finished in the top 25 in the seven LPGA events in which she played. Pressel recently was dubbed "Miss Firecracker" by Golf Digest for her explosive style and penchant for speaking her mind, especially in regard to 16-year-old golf phenom and rival Michelle Wie.Pressel was unavailable for comment because she was in Hawaii preparing for the SBS Open at Turtle Bay. She said in a statement that she has worn Polo since the age of 13. In prior matches, her fashion looks have been somewhat subdued, including khakis, white-collared shirts and argyle sweaters. She said in a response by e-mail that she isn't assisting in the design of the outfits, but "is happy to give feedback" about her Polo looks.

Pressel also has endorsement contracts with Callaway Golf for clubs. She is advised in golf by her grandfather, Herb Krickstein, who is her mentor and coach.

Female golfers are beginning to garner big endorsement contracts, and a new generation of younger players, including Pressel, Wie and 19-year-old Paula Creamer, are helping to give the sport a fresh identity. Pressel was given a waiver so she could play in the LPGA tour, which requires golfers to be 18.

Last year, Nike signed Wie to a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal that ushered in a new era for women golfers, who still haven't come close to matching the total earnings of Tiger Woods, who took in $87 million in 2004. Annika Sorenstam, the sport's highest female earner, earned $7.3 million in 2004. Female athletes have been gaining ground in sponsorships. Tennis star Maria Sharapova earned $18 million in 2004 through her endorsement deals, while Serena Williams took in $12.7 million that same year.

In addition to Nike, companies that sponsor golfers include Adidas, Jay Lindeberg and Greg Norman. As golfwear gets more fashionable. Puma and Fila both introduced fashion-forward golf looks this spring, and companies such as Lija Style and Claudia Romana have introduced stylish and directional apparel for women.

The LPGA season kicks off today in Oahu, Hawaii, and Pressel, Creamer and Sorenstam are among those scheduled to play. Wie is not a member of the tour this year since she has not petitioned for a waiver for the age requirement, but she is scheduled to play some events, said an LPGA spokeswoman.

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