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Michelle Wie's unique path

In the morning chill of the California desert, Michelle Wie tried one last time to find her swing.

She pulled driver from her neon pink-and-black golf bag, aligned herself toward a green 290 yards away at the farthest end of the practice range, and gave it a rip. She finished with only one hand on the club after hitting a snap hook. Shaking her head, Wie tried again and got the same result, at least keeping both hands on the club.

One more try.

This one reminded a dozen people watching why there is such a fuss over the 17-year-old from Hawaii. It was a majestic shot, never leaving its target until it landed on the front of the green, bringing a satisfied smile to Wie's face.

Then she shot 75 in the final round of the Samsung World Championship, closing out her LPGA Tour season with her worst score against the women all year.

"Sometimes you have to take a step back to get better," Wie said.

That snapshot on the range at Bighorn summed up the first year of the most famous golfer without a professional victory.

There were times when Wie simply dazzled.

She was tied for the lead on the back nine of three LPGA majors, a shot or two away from being the youngest major champion in history. She received worldwide attention during a detour to Canoe Brook, the New Jersey golf course she made famous by nearly becoming the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open.

And there were times when everyone wondered what in the world Wie was doing.

She withdrew midway through the second round of the John Deere Classic with heat exhaustion. Worse yet were the scores that followed in two more forays against the men -- dead last in the European Masters and 84 Lumber Classic in consecutive weeks.

"Those two events left a sour taste in everyone's mouth, including hers," swing coach David Leadbetter said. "Having the skill level is only one aspect of this pie. It's a challenge. This is the route they've taken, and it's unusual. She's very much a pioneer. If she's successful, it will have been the right thing. If not, they'll castigate her."

Starting her senior year in high school, having finished her fourth year playing the maximum LPGA events allowed without joining the tour, and still searching for a victory that would quiet her critics, Wie is determined not to look back.

She jokes about leaving the John Deere in an ambulance -- "At least they could have turned the siren on," she said -- and delights in six top 5s on the LPGA and having her first legitimate chance to win.

"Just the taste of it wanted me to do even better," she said. "That excitement was the best. It made me so motivated. I practiced like no other year."

But as she sat in the clubhouse at Bighorn, her posture changed -- upright, arms folded across her chest -- when asked if she sensed a shift in public opinion about her grandiose plans of taking on men and women around the world.

Since she was 13 and first competed against the men on smaller circuits, Wie has been criticized for not playing against her own age group, her own gender and for turning pro before leaving high school. She ignores most of it.

But she is not deaf.

"I'm not going to lie," she said. "It's not like I have an insult-proof shield around me. Some stuff is so ridiculous I don't even care. But obviously, some stuff does affect me a little bit. It's like, 'Why would they say something like that when they don't know me?' But you've got to accept it. There's nothing you can do about it."

She has met with two PGA Tour stars who know something about criticism.

At the European Masters, Wie had lunch with Sergio Garcia. He reminded her that he finished last as a 19-year-old in his first major as a professional, the '99 British Open at Carnoustie, then finished one shot behind Tiger Woods in his next major at Medinah.

Two weeks ago, she met with Phil Mickelson, whom the media constantly nagged over his failure to win a major. That changed when Mickelson won the '04 Masters, and he has captured one major each of the last three seasons.

"People that want to write bad stuff about me were waiting for those moments, waiting for when I do actually play bad," Wie said. "All summer, they really had nothing to write about. Bad days are going to happen, followed by good days, followed by bad days. The only thing really important to me is that everyone around me still supported me."

Her supporters see the big picture.

Wie maintained a 3.8 grade point average at Punahou School in Honolulu. She played 14 tournaments, not including two stages of U.S. Open qualifying, made six TV commercials for her corporate sponsors and had several other endorsement obligations. In only eight starts on the LPGA Tour, she earned $730,921, which would put her 14th on the money list.

Her earnings on and off the course will approach $20 million this year, making her the richest female in golf, and she already has donated more than $1 million, primarily to help children who can't afford medical care.

Two words summed up her year -- hectic and happy.

"I just love going to school and then playing in tournaments," Wie said. "I kind of have a dual life almost. It's a lot of fun. I like changing back and forth between different worlds."

With that comes more scrutiny than any other golfer this side of Woods.

"When you have a talent like that," Cristie Kerr once said, "you're always going to have a little controversy around it."

Skepticism about her unprecedented path reached an all-time high the last two months as Wie hit the first slump of her career. She did not break par in her last two LPGA events, sandwiched around her last-place finishes in the European Masters and 84 Lumber Classic against the men.

Wie called that "growing pains" and conceded she had a lot to learn in making out a schedule. She traveled nearly 20,000 miles across 12 time zones in September to play those two men's events, and the results were predictable.

"If they learned anything, they have got to schedule better," Leadbetter said.

He said the Wie family will meet in December to map out a strategy for 2007. The schedule will change, but not the way some of her critics would prefer. She is not about to abandon her dream of competing against men.

"I'm a very stubborn girl," Wie said. "I have to do what I want to do, and what I want is a combination. I'm working on this as a really long-term goal. You're going to have ups and downs in that process."

Wie has one more tournament this year, the Casio World Open on the Japan PGA Tour in late November.

She likely will start 2007 at the Sony Open in Honolulu, and while she has not made the cut in six tries on the PGA Tour, not everyone is losing interest in this unusual plan.

"We haven't changed our feelings," said Clair Peterson, tournament director of the John Deere Classic, who plans to offer her another exemption. "People lose sight of the fact that ... she's a terrific talent. People are interested in the talent. Tiger was invited as a 16-year-old to play in the Nissan Open, and no one worried about it. He didn't make a cut until he was 19."

Woods, however, grew his legend by winning three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs and three straight U.S. Amateurs, along with an NCAA title at Stanford. Wie improves on the LPGA Tour each year, although the knock on her is that she hasn't won.

"She has all the talent in the world," Juli Inkster said. "It's what she wants to do with it, what she can do with it. You can have the best swing, the best putting stroke, the best chipping. But you've got to play the game. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out."

October 24, 2006

 




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