Lopez, Rankin weigh in on Wie hype

While the millionaire many times over always seemed to contend in majors on the LPGA, and even twice shot 68 in the PGA Tour’s Sony Open, her last victory came in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links – at age 13.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – When LPGA administrators and players gathered last weekend in Virginia, one of the most-discussed topics was ways for all the players to help draw more fans to their game by being more visible outside the ropes.

Of course, it wasn’t lost on some that there just happens to be a 19-year-old rookie who could make a splash on the course, too. Imagine the buzz for Michelle Wie’s first tour win.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said.

The sophomore at Stanford has long been the most hyped player in women’s golf, a phenom before she was a teenager who tried using competition against her peers merely to hone her game with a real goal of taking on the men, first on the PGA Tour, and then at the Masters.

But while the millionaire many times over always seemed to contend in majors on the LPGA, and even twice shot 68 in the PGA Tour’s Sony Open, her last victory came in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links – at age 13.

Now, she’s a rookie on the LPGA, and trying to be just one of the girls.

“This year definitely feels like a fresh start,” she said Tuesday at Kingsmill, site of this weekend’s Michelob Ultra Open. “It got me more excited about playing, especially playing every week. I just have a new mindset. It feels like a new opportunity and it’s a lot of fun.”

Her goals and demeanor, which once drew criticism, are more measured, too.

“Just have fun, try my hardest at every moment, not think too much about the future,” she said after a practice round Tuesday. “Obviously I want to win a couple, but I think the most important thing for me is just to have fun and relax out there and good golf will follow.”

Wie declined to speculate what impact a breakthrough victory would have – “I don’t know what it would cause, but hopefully good things would happen,” she said – but Rankin and others think the boost it could give the women’s game in a sagging economy would be sizable.

“First of all, people are going to be happy to see this phenomenal talent finally begin to reach her potential,” Rankin said. “Secondly, because of her age, because she is so young, people are going to be happy to see her overcome the difficulties of the last few years.

“Thirdly, she’s just so flat-out talented and good, it’s going to make the competition on this tour so much keener. ... And she’s been this way since she was about 14. She bears the burden of having the most potential of anybody anyone has ever seen at such a young age.”

Fellow Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez said fans often approach her with the same questions.

“They always ask me: ‘What’s going on with Michelle Wie?’ ” Lopez said. “I mean, that is the main topic a lot of times when people come up and ask me what I’m doing on the tour.”

Clearly, the years without winning have hardly curtailed fans’ fascination with the regal 6-footer with the graceful swing, the posing finish and the long, purposeful stride.

When she contended in her debut this season in the SBS Open in Hawaii, the tour’s Web site got the second-most traffic on a weekend in its history, LPGA spokesman David Higdon said.

No. 1? The 2006 Evian Masters in France, when a then-16 year old Wie led by two shots with seven holes to play before faltering and losing by one shot to Karrie Webb.

This season, Wie is 22nd on the money list with $142,756 through four events.

No one would have guessed when she won the U.S. Amateur Publinx title at 13 that Wie would still be chasing her first LPGA victory six years later, but Wie prefers to think of herself as just one of the players on tour these days, and to let her play determine where she fits.

“I think it’s great that people think so highly of me that they have expectations, and I have really high expectations for myself,” she said. “I’m trying my hardest to fulfill my own expectations and trying to become the best I can be.”

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