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Michelle Wie ready to tee up at John Deere Classic

With her sparkly chandelier earrings and the ``wells'' and ``you knows'' sprinkled liberally throughout her conversations, Michelle Wie could be any other 15-year-old girl.

Get her on the golf course, though, and Wie becomes something special. No matter her age, or what tour she's playing.

``She walks high. Her mannerisms are very mature. She's very, very classy. Very professional. She's funny. She's generous. She's nice,'' said Zach Johnson, who played a practice round with Wie on Tuesday.

``When you're standing behind her behind the ropes and you're seeing her hit a golf shot, you're like, `Wow, she hit it just as far as so-and-so or just as straight as so-and-so,'' Johnson said, awe in his voice. ``And she's 15. It's unbelievable.''

Welcome to the wonderful world of Wie.

She's already proven this summer that she can hang with the big girls, finishing second at the LPGA Championship and sharing the third-round lead at the U.S. Open. Now she has her sights set on the men, making her third venture onto the PGA Tour at this week's John Deere Classic.

``Ever since I was very young, I wanted to play with the guys,'' she said. ``I had a choice of playing softball or baseball. I played baseball. I think that's just my characteristic.''

Wie has been occasionally playing on the LPGA Tour since she was 12, so her appearances at those tournaments no longer causes a ruckus. In addition to being runner-up to Annika Sorenstam at the LPGA Championship, she was second at the SBS Open. She's yet to win an LPGA event, but still she would already have earned about $300,000 and been top 25 on the money list this year if she wasn't an amateur.

But the PGA Tour is a different story. Sorenstam was the first woman in almost 60 years to play on the PGA Tour when she teed it up at The Colonial in 2003, and only Suzy Whaley and Wie have joined her since. No woman has made a 36-hole cut in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias did it at the 1945 Los Angeles Open, though Wie missed by just one stroke at the 2004 Sony Open. She missed the cut by seven strokes at this year's Sony Open.

Wie is playing in the men's U.S. Amateur Public Links next week at Shaker Run in Lebanon, Ohio.

``I feel like I have nothing to lose,'' she said. ``Basically, I'm the underdog here, so I'm just going to have a lot of fun.''

Wie is well aware there are people who think she has no business here, that she should stick to the LPGA Tour. Or, better yet, junior events. But she and her parents mapped out this plan long ago, and she's sticking to it.

She still wants to go to Stanford, but her long-term goal is to play on the men's tour. Nothing against the women, she wants to beat them, too. But playing the men is a different challenge.

``There are some people that are always against me,'' she said. ``But, you know, I just have to realize that I'm having a lot of fun, and this is what I want to do. And I'm not going to stop just for them.''

Some of the objections stem from her use of sponsor exemptions. If Wie really wants to play, critics say, she should try qualifying like Whaley did.

But Wie sees it a different way.

``If someone says, 'Here you go, here's $100,' I mean, would you rather work for it or would you just get it?'' she asked. ``I mean, that makes sense to me. I mean, I don't know about anyone else, but I like the easy way in.''

And Wie is hardly the first person to get sponsor's exemptions.

``If the sponsors want to get a crowd, that's what they do,'' Tiger Woods said last week. ``I got an exemption when I was 16, too.''

For Deere Classic organizers, giving Wie an exemption wasn't even a question.

Tournament director Clair Peterson extended an invitation for last year's tournament after she barely missed the cut at the 2004 Sony, but the timing didn't work. When Wie's parents called Peterson this spring, he was happy to make the offer again.

Because the Deere Classic falls on the week before the British Open, most of the big names skip it. With the addition of Wie, though, it becomes a must-watch event. Ticket sales are brisk, and 93 media organizations requested credentials, an increase of about 30 percent from last year.

``She's accomplished a tremendous amount in golf already,'' Peterson said. ``She's a huge talent and people are interested in seeing that. That really was our first consideration.''

Besides, Johnson said, talent is talent.

``Throw sex aside, you have a phenomenal talent,'' Johnson said. ``They don't come around very often. There's only so many Michelle Wies, Tiger Woodses, Michael Jordans, whoever it is. ... I just think it's a win-win situation on both the Wie side and the tournament side, through and through.''

 

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