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Michelle Wie already learning lessons

It's not always easy being 16 and famous, no matter how easy everyone tries to make it for you.

Michelle Wie was surrounded all week by a protective cocoon that included her parents, her agents, her caddie and her Nike people for her eagerly awaited pro debut. All were in the California desert to make sure things went smoothly for the future star.

None of them, though, could help her as she sat alone in the press tent Sunday night, fighting back tears and trying to explain what went wrong.

She should have been $53,126 richer, her first tournament check in her purse. She should have been eager to wing her way back to Hawaii and tell her friends at school about how they pay you to play a game you love.

Instead, she looked as if she had just been called into the principal's office for punishment.

If her name was Jeong Jang, Marisa Baena or any of the other anonymous players in the Samsung World Championship, she would have escaped without anyone saying a word. But this was Michelle Wie, who might as well replace the swoosh on her shirt and hat with big targets instead.

Her crime? You might stretch it and say she cheated, dropping her ball closer to the hole in Saturday's third round so she could salvage a par after hitting it into a bush.

Those more charitable would say she was simply a careless teenager who made a mistake.

Another group -- which includes Wie and her entourage -- would argue she did nothing wrong at all.

``I don't feel like I cheated,'' Wie said.

Don't ask Michael Bamberger which group he stands in. He said he was simply trying to protect the integrity of the game when he walked up to a rules official late Sunday afternoon to say he had concerns about how Wie handled the drop from a day before.

Bamberger is a writer for Sports Illustrated, a job that gives him up-close access to the play of field in golf. He and some other writers were following Wie around the course when she declared an unplayable lie in a Gold Lantana bush, then took a drop onto some nearby grass that to Bamberger seemed was closer to the hole -- a no-no in golf.

The problem wasn't just that Bamberger made a case about it, though most journalists would argue that their job is to report the news, not make it. But he didn't have his fit of conscience until late the next day, which was way too late for Wie to make any remedy.

``I thought about it more and was just uncomfortable that I knew something,'' Bamberger said. ``Integrity is at the heart of the game. I don't think she cheated. I think she was just hasty.''

Being hasty, of course, is part of being a 16-year-old, which is part of the reason the LPGA Tour has a rule that you have to be 18 before you can become a full-time touring pro. Wie's caddie even warned her before she took the drop that she had to be careful not to drop the ball any closer to the hole.

But the moral arbiters of the game aren't writers who think they see something, or fans who call in after seeing what they believe are wrongs committed on TV. They're the players themselves, who are ultimately responsible for policing themselves in the one sport where players call penalties on themselves.

That's what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday when Kevin Stadler was disqualified after informing a rules official that he had an illegal club in his bag -- a wedge with a damaged shaft. Stadler was tied for fifth place and looking at a big chunk of change, but like Wie, ended up going home empty-handed.

Wie made a bad drop, but you could blame that on the fact that she's 16 and probably studies fashion magazines more closely than rule books. You could also blame playing partner Grace Park, who should have been watching but was apparently too preoccupied with her own game at the time.

So Wie learned a $53,126 lesson and something probably just as valuable -- don't always trust the press.

In the long term, it's a mere hiccup in a career that will likely earn her untold millions. Wie already had $10 million in the bank even before celebrating her Sweet 16th last Tuesday -- thanks to lucrative sponsor deals with Nike and Sony.

Still, it would have been nice to frame that first check and put it in the trophy case. It would have been nice to buy the girls she hangs out with at Punahou School in Honolulu lunch this week and tell them it came from her first winnings playing golf.

Instead, she walked out of the press tent surrounded by her parents and the rest of her support group. She got in a golf cart with her mother and father, and likely had a good cry.

It wasn't the way the teenager with the dangling earrings dreamed the week would end.

``I'm pretty sad, but, you know, I think I'm going to get over it,'' Wie said.

October 17, 2005

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