2006: An off-Broadway hit – and miss

Summit, N.J.

They came to see a one-girl show in two acts. The first ended with a roar from the crowd, the suspense building to a feverish pitch. The second act ended with a hearty standing ovation in recognition of a job well done – albeit not good enough.

Michelle Wie’s bid to become the first female to qualify for the U.S. Open through 36-hole sectional qualifying fell five shots short of a playoff. But it was quite a show.

Say what you want about Wie, the 16-year-old phenom from Hawaii, but she knows how to rise to the occasion. She punctuated a bogey-free, 2-under 68 on the South Course in her morning round at Canoe Brook Country Club by holing a 60-foot chip for birdie on the 18th hole. Her oversized smile wasn’t forced. It hasn’t hardened into granite the way it does on some celebrities. It was the smile of perpetual youth, of a girl who thought she could beat the men and was doing a pretty good job of it.

This was an off-Broadway performance in Summit, N.J., with the potential of hitting Broadway next week outside New York at Winged Foot Country Club.

But it attracted a media frenzy and about 4,000 spectators according to reports. Workers called in sick. Students skipped school. Whatever it took to witness history. They parked nearby at the Short Hills Mall until the lot reached capacity in the late morning, a first for U.S. Open sectional qualifying.

Many thought she would be up a Canoe Brook without a paddle. Wie played fearlessly. She made a 12-foot par putt at the first hole and pumped her fist. She was never in danger of making another bogey in the morning. She woman-handled the 485-yard, par-5 sixth hole. After cutting the right corner of the dogleg with her tee shot, she took dead aim with a long iron from 210 yards, challenged the front bunkers and reached the back fringe in two. She two-putted for birdie to go into red figures, and never looked back. But it could have been so much more. She missed six putts inside 12 feet.

The way she executed under intense scrutiny, her legend will grow. Others will begin to dream her dream. Maybe it will be Adriana Ramirez, a 3-year-old gripping a Titleist golf ball in each of her hands. Her dad, Felix Ramirez of Princeton, N.J., brought his daughter to see history. He pointed toward the 11th fairway and said, “Look sweetie, there’s Michelle. Just like you see her on TV.”

It wasn’t only daughters sitting high on their dad’s shoulders. There were 70-year-old men and women walking 36 holes for the first time in years. Wie dazzled with her height and runway model looks. With her syrupy swing, her winning attitude and her quiet confidence.

With everything she attempts, her theme seems to be exploration. She lives by a simple philosophy that there is no harm in trying. Nothing is impossible. And why not try to qualify? So what if no other female has ever attempted to do so. There’s no gender associated with our national championship. It’s called the U.S. Open. Someone has to be the first female, so it might as well be her. What an attitude to have at 16. She is not afraid to realize her potential and stretch herself into everything she can become.

We’ve watched her come within a shot of making a PGA Tour cut. She flirted with qualifying for The Masters by reaching the quarterfinals of last summer’s U.S Amateur Public Links before bowing out. But that door slammed close when she turned pro. And so many of us thought, what’s the rush? Why not take another crack at it this year? Just when we started to believe she could do it.

Instead, she moved on to an even more daunting task. There were only 18 spots available from a field of 153 at Canoe Brook, which included several Tour stalwarts. Guys who’ve won major championships, such as Mark O’Meara and Mark Brooks. Most of us, before too long, fail at something we thought we could do. We skin our knee, it hurts, and we realize we can’t do that and move on. Or at least lower the bar.

Michelle Wie is not like most people. She wants to soar. Even when she falls, she stands back up and raises the bar.

Imagine for a moment what it must be like to think with no boundaries.

She’s like Michael Jordan, who, despite getting cut from his eighth-grade basketball team, thinks, “If I stick my tongue out a little farther maybe I can dunk from the foul stripe.”

There’s something so innocent and distinctly American at work here: She has made herself into an underdog. In this case, she’s doing it without any handout. At the U.S. Open sectional, there are no sponsor exemptions. No guaranteed money. She was trying to earn her way. At 16.

History doesn’t happen often. That’s why more than 200 media credentials were issued, two satellite trucks showed up, ESPNEWS and The Golf Channel gave live updates every half-hour, and reporters filed hole-by-hole accounts via Blackberry phones.

They came to try to explain to those who weren’t there what a 16-year-old is capable of doing. They came to see if she could make the next jump. The larger question that lingers, the riddle we can’t wait to have answered, is just how far can she jump?

There’s so much to accomplish, great goals ahead, and a mission to explore the power of her potential.

She didn’t succeed today, but we can’t wait for the encore.











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