RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Michelle Wie stepped into a lake last week at La Costa and left with her latest run-in with the rules book. She’s hoping to leap into a pond Sunday, which will happen only if she wins her first major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Wie is one of the headliners this week at Mission Hills. She’s coming off a tie for sixth at the Kia Classic. Wie was penalized two strokes when she grounded her club in a hazard after hitting out of the water on La Costa’s 11th hole. Wie protested the penalty to no avail.
On Tuesday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Wie danced around questions about the penalty, saying “It was very unfortunate, but I’m just looking forward to this week.”
She’s long been a polarizing figure in women’s golf, viewed both as a potential savior for the struggling LPGA and as an overhyped media sensation who received more attention than her results justified. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, there was one undeniable truth: She’s the most visible player in the game.
Now one of the pre-Kraft questions is this: Can a player with just one victory be considered a favorite?
Wie started the week by baking brownies and sewing a dress to take out her frustrations over the ruling. It wasn’t the first time she’s violated the rules.
She was disqualified from her pro debut after taking an improper drop, penalized at the ’06 British Open for grounding her club in a bunker and disqualified from the’08 State Farm when she failed to sign her scorecard. Wie was in second place when she was DQ’d.
The penalty overshadowed solid play last week – she would’ve tied for second if not for the penalty. Wie has improved in each start this season, starting with a tie for 22nd at the Honda LPGA Thailand.
Wie has a strong history at the Kraft. At 6,702 yards, Mission Hills Country Club’s Dinah Shore Tournament Course is one of the longest courses on tour, and seems to favor the players with the clubhead speed to hit high approach shots with spin.
Wie is one of those players. She’s the rare female player with an extra-stiff shaft in her driver. Her instructor, David Leadbetter, questioned that decision last year, but said Wie can handle it now that her left wrist is healthy.
Wie has injured both wrists during her career, but has struggled in the past couple years with injuries to her left wrist. She first injured it while running in 2007. She reinjured it in March ’08 when she accidentally hit a ball embedded in rough while practicing at Stanford’s driving range.
Leadbetter said she only had 60-70 percent strength in the wrist this time last year.
“She’s well ahead of the curve, as far as where she was last year,” Leadbetter said. “Last year, she was still rehabbing her wrist. It’s amazing how much more lag she has in her swing. She can hang onto the club better. With the speed she swings the club, it was difficult for her to have any sort of control.
“I like where her game’s at right now.”
Wie had trouble hitting fairways at last year’s Kraft. She scrambled her way to a first-round 71, but fell to a tie for 67th. She shot 71-81-81-71.
“I wasn’t the driving ball well at all,” Wie said. “I wasn’t hitting the ball well. I was still in the process of getting better.”
It was her first appearance at this event since she tied for third in ’06. Wie finished fourth here in ’04 and tied for ninth in ’03. That event was the first time Wie was introduced to much of the golfing world. As a 13-year-old, she tied for ninth after playing in the final group with Annika Sorenstam and eventual winner Patricia Meunier-Lebouc.
Wie, who has a house at nearby Bighorn, played a practice round at Mission Hills two weeks ago. That’s also when she was taking her finals for Stanford. She has one more waiting for her next week – in Japanese art history. Then she’ll take a leave of absence until the fall semester. Wie said she got all As and Bs, though was less than enthused when reporting her results.
“I wasn’t expecting the Bs to be Bs,” she said.
Wie has been dealing with high expectations for some time. It turns out many of those are self-imposed.