2005: A Wie step back

Honolulu

The popular local passion play, “Michelle Wie: Sony Open Sequel,” didn’t turn out as well as the 2004 original for the lead character. She putted like a 15-year-old, made a triple and double bogey, missed the cut by seven strokes and shed a few tears. Then she got on with real life, going shopping and back to 10th grade.

“Retail therapy,” she called the mall experience. “It just makes me feel a lot better.”

As for school, even though she made all A’s last quarter except for English, she wasn’t so sure she’d be in the mood after a long break. After all, she’s taking a full load: Algebra II, conceptual physics, foundation art, Japanese and professional golf.

The latter is more of an international internship. Though playing for free and her age would suggest she is an amateur, her game and schedule are pro material. She is striving for stardom in the major leagues, first against women, then against men. It would surprise no one if she followed Tiger Woods’ lead and became an IMG-Nike global marketing giant who dominates like-gender competition. Wie already uses Nike clubs, had lunch after the Sony first round with a Nike representative and wore a Nike belt buckle during a practice round.

“I always wanted to be known as doing stuff that no one ever thought of,” Wie said. “I just want to push myself to the limit. I want to be known as (someone) that changed the world and change how people think.”

Most high school sophomores probably set their sights lower than altering the course of the universe. But then Wie is oddly mature for her age, as a golfer and person. She showed that again at windy Waialae Country Club, even though she shot 9-over-par 75-74–149. She tied for 128th, beating 14 players, including three PGA Tour winners. She has more shots, particularly low ones in wind, than a year ago. In 2004, she shot 72-68 here, missed the cut by one stroke, tied for 80th and beat 48 guys in calm conditions.

The difference this time was putting and 25 mph wind. She and coach David Leadbetter say her short game is markedly improved, but there’s room for plenty more. Wie made only one putt of more

than 10 feet, compared with seven last year. She went 1-for-11 on putts in the 10- to 20-foot range. That does not count three putts from 8 feet for the triple on No. 6 in the second round.

“I think I practiced too hard for it and I tried too hard,” Wie said after trying to become the first woman in 60 years to make a Tour cut. “After missing putt after putt and making that triple . . . your shoes kind of get heavier and it gets harder because your confidence goes down.”

Her goal had been the top 20. Now it’s to win something the rest of the year and avoid a repeat of a trophy-less 2004. She’ll again play the allotted

six LPGA events, including the SBS Open in Hawaii next month and two others before spring break. She also plans to enter qualifying for the men’s U.S. Amateur and Public Links.

Wie showed last year her game is LPGA ready, placing fourth in a major and finishing out of the top 20 only once in seven starts. Though the Sony again was a wonderful learning experience, she would be best served to focus on competing against women and learning to win before trying to play against men regularly. Confidence should be protected, overexposure prevented.

That said, the Sony is a good fit for her and the sponsor. She’s a local celebrity who was the event’s top draw for crowds this year and last. It seemed that at least half the spectators followed her.

“I think everybody out here (players) pulls for her,” said 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman. “I think that’s really probably the most important thing.”

Sponsor exemptions were created for one reason: To help tournaments stir interest and improve the bottom line. Wie does both without compromising quality of play, prompting Ernie Els to say she should be welcome every year unless her game falters.

“That’s not throwing an invite away,” said Els, who played a practice round with Wie for the second consecutive year. “Only the real skeptics will think that way. It’s phenomenal what she is doing for the game. She’s so good for the island and the tournament.”

Els says he can see her turning pro in two years, at 17. Wie says she doesn’t know yet whether she’ll turn before finishing high school. Whatever, clearly the last year has changed her plans. A year ago she emphatically insisted she would attend Stanford University right after high school. Now her father, B.J., says the plan is for her to play professionally while taking college classes simultaneously.

The dual tasks of college studying and professional playing, of course, would be highly difficult. And the carrot of crazy money has a way of making prodigies forget about school.

Unless it’s Q-School.

“If she dominates (the LPGA), she can try and flip over and come play with us,” Els said.

For now, Wie is getting good help. Leadbetter is in charge of the swing. She has a new mental coach (Jim Loehr) and physical trainer (Paul Gagne of Montreal). She has twice used Nick Price’s regular caddie, Jimmy Johnson, and this spring she’ll use longtime Nick Faldo looper Fanny Sunesson.

“Having top caddies will help her be responsible for her own game,” Leadbetter said. “I don’t want to be there every week.”

Having respect of fellow players is vital, too. Perhaps the best thing Wie did at the Sony was impress her playing partners, Tour rookies Brett Wetterich and Matt Davidson, who also missed the cut.

Davidson: “It was like playing with a guy on the PGA Tour.”

Wetterich: “She’s definitely good enough to be a Q-School grad.”

In due time we’ll find out if he’s right.




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