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Michelle Wie set for first pro examination

Michelle Wie tumbled out of the cart before it came to a halt, regained her balance and then ran in place like a girl who couldn't wait to get started.

Turns out she was only trying to stay warm on a chilly Wednesday morning in the desert.

Her final practice round for the Kraft Nabisco Championship, her first LPGA Tour major as a professional, began at 6:20 a.m., giving her enough time to squeeze in nine holes at Mission Hills before the pro-am came through.

If she was cold, much less sleepy, it didn't show.

Her fourth full swing was a 4-iron from 204 yards on the par-5 11th, struck cleanly and with such control that it stopped 15 feet away to the right of the pin.

Each tournament is an evaluation of her game, and her decision to turn pro last October, six days before her 16th birthday. And each tournament brings the inevitable question.

When is she going to win?

Still two years from high school graduation in Honolulu, Wie does not feel rushed to fulfill everyone's expectations.

"I'm only 16," she said, stating that more as a fact than an excuse. "I want to be better when I wake up in the morning, but I know that's not going to happen. Some days, I'll feel I'm on top of my game. Some days, I won't. I'm trying to learn that some days won't be as good as others."

Even though she hasn't hoisted a trophy since the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at age 13, there hasn't been many bad days. Off the course, she has signed endorsement deals with Sony, Nike and Omega that pay her over $10 million a year. On the course, she has gone from making the cut to making cameo appearances on the leaderboard to regularly contending for titles, a steady progression that fuels expectations.

Wie made her LPGA Tour debut in 2006 by closing with a 6-under 66 while paired in the final round with Morgan Pressel at the Fields Open, finishing one shot out of a playoff.

Next up is the Kraft Nabisco, where she tied for ninth as a 13-year-old in 2003.

It's the first time Wie, Pressel and Paula Creamer will compete in a major as professionals, a trio of young Americans that has a chance to drive the LPGA Tour.

The target for all of them remains Annika Sorenstam, the defending champion who took the traditional plunge into the lake on the 18th green after winning by eight shots.

Sorenstam again has set a goal of winning the calendar Grand Slam, getting halfway there in 2005 until a four-putt double bogey derailed her bid in the U.S. Women's Open at Cherry Hills, an event that showcased the LPGA future.

Wie and Pressel were tied for the 54-hole lead, with Creamer one shot behind. Wie crashed to an 82, Creamer had a 79 and Pressel was on the verge of winning until Birdie Kim holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole.

"I'm very competitive," Sorenstam said of the youngsters. "I'd do anything to beat them all."

And she has, winning 10 times last year, and winning her '06 debut in a 54-hole event in Mexico when she was tied with Creamer going into the final round.

Sorenstam not only has the experience of winning three times at the Kraft Nabisco, she has the skill and all the shots to be the heavy favorite on a course that truly resembles a major. The greens not only are firm -- it takes a small search party to find pitch marks on some surfaces -- but extremely fast. And the rough is a consistent 3 inches, as deep as 5 inches in some spots along the fairway and around the green.

"It depends on shotmaking and the short game," Sorenstam said. "That's all about control."

Wie got a taste of that Wednesday morning when swing coach David Leadbetter created a game for her to play to simulate tournament conditions.

The teenager kept score on her own ball. As they approached the green, Leadbetter would toss another ball in the bunker, or in the deep collar of rough, or sometimes just off the green for a simple chip. She had to get up-and-down to save par, and that was added to the score.

"The focus now is on scoring," Leadbetter said. "It's tough to emulate a tournament when she's at home, tough to get into any kind of competitive situation."

Wie stuck out her bottom lip when Leadbetter dropped one ball into the rough right of the 12th green, 20 feet from a hole that was tucked over a ridge and ran away from her. She flopped it out beautifully, it landed in the fringe and trickled down to 2 feet.

"No gimmes," he said to her.

Competition might be the one thing holding Wie back.

She played once in January and once in February, missing the cut in the Sony Open on the PGA Tour, then coming as close as she ever has to winning at the Fields Open. The Kraft Nabisco is her first tournament in five weeks -- imagine Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson taking a five-week break before the Masters.

After this is another five-week break before playing against the men in Korea. By summer, once her junior year is over, she will be playing a full schedule of tournaments against men and women.

"I'm definitely excited for the summer," Wie said. "It means no school and just golf."

The age was evident during practice. After belting a beautiful drive on the 12th hole, Wie stopped in her tracks, turned to her parents and said, "I've haven't done my homework. Social studies."

Her caddie, Greg Johnston, shook his head.

"And that was your swing thought?" he said.

March 30, 2006

 




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