Wie Continues To Surprise With Ability
By Ken Klavon, USGA
Cherry Hills Village, Colo. – The words tumbled out of his mouth non-effusively, a drone woven tightly around the English dialect.
A preamble, a debate, a parting shot for the critics?
Not in the least. David Leadbetter, the famed golf instructor who has undertaken the prodigy that is Michelle Wie, stood with his back to his prized pupil on the range Tuesday and subtly got the message across.
"When you’ve finishing second on the LPGA, you can’t say winning an AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) event is equivalent," he said.
Leadbetter was referring to the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, where she finished second to Annika Sorenstam almost three weeks ago. And perhaps to those detractors who have publicly wondered what gives her the verve, and nerve, to turn her nose at the junior golf circuit – or even the many open women’s competition – that may one day better prepare her for the rigors of the professional game.
Since smashing her way onto the scene five years ago, at the age of 10, when she became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA event (U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links), Wie has shared a stage at times with two of golf’s biggest names, Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods. People are intrigued by the physical ability, her sapling-like figure that is still years away from fully maturing. Fans, not much younger than her, flock her way for autographs. Her galleries are among the biggest at any event she plays.
She is, for all intents and purposes, a paradox.
In her player’s bio, there are more run-on sentences that begin with ‘youngest to ever …’ that it’s now a clichéd read. The critics say they want more, something in the form of a victory.
Out of fairness, she did win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links two years ago (she lost in the 2004 WAPL final). But the well is dry after that.
She has bucked the traditional route in getting to pro events, focusing her energy instead on playing with the big girls – and boys. Some found it outrageous when she first announced her intentions of wanting to make a start at the Masters one day.
Early next month she’ll play in the John Deere Classic, a PGA Tour tournament, after receiving a sponsor’s exemption.
She made the golf world take notice June 14 when she became the first female to qualify for a USGA championship generally played by males, that being the U.S. Amateur Public Links, which is open to "any" golfer who meets the handicap requirement. In fact, females can technically try to qualify for 12 of the USGA’s 13 national championships, the lone exception being the U.S. Junior Amateur, which is solely open to boys 17 and under.
It’s hard to think of her as an amateur. It’s even harder, yet, to believe that she’s a precocious teenager, one who still can’t drive a car legally yet.
So here she is back for more. She has many aliases: The Amateur, The Phenom, The Savior, The Torch Bearer, The Cross-Over Wunderkind, and in come circles, The Unwanted. Those on the LPGA Tour understand Wie’s importance to its product. It’s not that players dislike her; it’s more that they’d like her to earn her stripes without first dreaming about the Masters – and playing both tours – prior to becoming a pro and getting her exemption status on the women’s tour. They have groused about this publicly.
"Well, I mean, I don’t really notice anything," said the soft-spoken Wie in reference to the negative treatment.
Seventeen-year-old Morgan Pressel knows what it’s like to be Wie. Pressel burst on the scene at the 2001 Women’s Open as a 12-year-old qualifier (she turned 13 just before the championship). Hers has been a disparate path to Wie’s as she’s tasted an abundance of success playing in AJGA events, and minimal triumphs at LPGA tournaments when invited. (Little known fact: Pressel eliminated Wie in the third round of the 2003 U.S. Girls’ Junior at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn.).
Pressel would have every right to be envious of Wie, especially when she’s winning everything in sight on the AJGA level (she already has won two major events on that circuit this year). Some might even argue that Pressel is the better overall player. That debate, however, is for 10 years down the road.
"She’s obviously a great player," said Pressel after hitting balls. "But you look at the paper this morning and there’s a huge picture of Michelle, and Annika is going for the Grand Slam."
The inference was well made. It’s an eye-popper when Sorenstam, going through one of the most amazing stretches the LPGA Tour has ever seen, has to take a back seat.
But Pressel can absolutely relate to the reasons why Wie is doing what she’s doing. Mainly because Wie can play on the professional level.
"I’m coming here to win," said Pressel. "It sounds strange because of my age, but it also goes back to Michelle. I’m a year older than her. You say you want to win, and everyone looks at your age and they say, ‘You want to win? Why do you say that? You’re too young to win.’"
It’s because they’re fierce competitors, looking to get better, added Pressel.
Twenty-three-year-old Australian Katherine Hull, who earned exemption status on the tour last year after a season on the developmental Futures Tour, can see both sides. While at Pepperdine University, she was a 2002-2003 All-American, 2003 NCAA College Player of the Year and winner of the prestigious Dinah Shore Award. She led Australia to the 2002 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship title in Malaysia.
She had mild success as an amateur, but knew she eventually that pro golf was where she would earn her stripes – and paychecks.
Choosing her words carefully, she said, perhaps proving Leadbetter’s point: "I think winning at the junior and amateur level definitely helps you at the pro level. I played in one [pro event] in college as an amateur and it was an invaluable experience. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way. But with people out there taking a spot, when others are trying to get their card, that’s tough."
Other established veterans of the tour have come out in favor of Wie, flummoxed by the notion that someone so young can be so good to the point of incomprehension.
"Because she’s so young and she’s so talented – and it’s really not a normal situation that somebody that young can be that good," said Cristie Kerr, who ranks second this year on the money list and who turned pro out of high school. "But she’s very, very talented and I think she’s going to be great for us.
"I just hope she wants to play on our tour because we really need her."
Jill McGill, a two-time USGA champion, added that Wie shouldn’t be judged on what she wants to do if she can pull it off. McGill, a Denver native who now lives in San Diego, pointed out that many amateur events are of the match play variety, which wouldn’t necessarily benefit Wie in a stroke-play format.
"She has learned the game of golf to stroke play, to play in the tournaments out here on the LPGA Tour, out on the PGA Tour, whatever she wants to do," said McGill.
"She’s proven that she can compete with the best women golfers in the world, and if she feels her goal is to play against the men and play on the PGA Tour, who am I to say no?"
McGill added that critics keep forgetting that Wie has gobs of pressure on her to perform, and she’s stood up to it. Again, she’s only 15.
Bringing us back to Leadbetter. On the putting range Tuesday, the two spent more than an hour going over reads and club speed. The two gabbed in between putts until Wie knocked in a 6-footer.
"How’d you read that one?" quizzed Leadbetter.
"Right to left," said a jovial Wie.
"Whaaat?" came Leadbetter’s response as he motioned that the putt was actually the opposite.
Leadbetter laughed it off later, saying that young players tend to just step up and read every line the same. He said that will improve with experience.
Right now the goal is to get her physically prepared for the future. Leadbetter located a trainer in Canada who e-mails strength-training exercises to her.
"With girls and women, as long as they retain flexibility, and strength, they are able to keep" their swings intact for a longer period, said Leadbetter, whose wife, Kelly, won the first two WAPLs in 1977 and ‘78.
Later, when asked what impresses him most about Wie’s development, which could include ancillary things to golf, he was forthright. Her repertoire of shots, and the way she has learned to shape them, stood out.
Again, the conversation came full circle to winning. The question of ‘when’ loomed.
"When it comes time to win," said Leadbetter, "she’ll know how to win.
"She’s just one of the very few players in every era who comes along."
Ken Klavon is the Web Editor for the USGA. E-mail him with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.