As Wie goes, so goes the LPGA
By BILL HUFFMAN
Even though Michelle Wie isn’t prepared for it, her time is now.
That stark reality glared at us like red lights on a police car during Friday’s second round of the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International. And speaking of cops, there were as many as four officers following Wie around Papago Golf Course, including a personal bodyguard inside the ropes.
What other player in women’s golf commands that Tiger Woods-like security? Not Lorena Ochoa, the world’s No. 1, and especially not little-known Korean In-Kyung Kim, who is leading this tournament by two strokes at the halfway point.
At times this week, Ochoa’s gallery has reached, maybe, a couple of hundred fans even though she has been towards the top of the leader board both days. Wie’s gallery, meanwhile, has surged over 500 fans on numerous occasions even though the world’s No. 84-ranked player had to fight mightily just to make the cut.
Fortunately for tournament organizers, Wie made it right on the number at 5-over par. But it took a clutch putt on the final hole from six feet to save par that made the difference in her very unspectacular round of 76 on the heels of a 73.
"It was a struggle,” was the way Wie summed it up. "It was weird, because I felt I didn’t shoot my score,” meaning she thought it should have been better, and it probably would have been had she not lost a ball and made double-bogey just three holes into her round.
And, no, there wasn’t any truth to a rumor that LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens had decried that the cut would come wherever the Wie one ended up. That was another day and time, when Wie was ranked as high as No. 3 in the world (2006) with a little help from the commish.
Actually, it was a blessing that Wie survived to play the weekend, what with Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis on the bench having WD-ed with injuries. At the same time and despite all that charisma, Creamer and Gulbis can’t command the cameras or the fans’ adoration quite like Wie.
So what is it about Michelle Wie — the Paris Hilton of the LPGA — that attracts fans of all ages? Why does Wie get more attention than even Annika Sorenstam in all her glory despite the fact that Wie never has won a tournament since turning pro three years ago?
Chances are it’s not because of her nickname, “the Big Wiesy.’’ Wie isn’t even that long these days compared to players like Ochoa, whose average drive (302.2 yards) is about 12 yards beyond Wie’s (289.2 yards) this week.
Even Wie’s playing partners for the first two rounds, sensational rookie Vicky Hurst who rewrote the Futures record book last year, and Arizona State’s prized freshman Carlota Ciganda from Spain, were laying their best Linda Ronstandt (“Blue Bayou’’) on Wie for much of the day.
Bear with me, because this is where it gets a little fuzzy as Wie’s chief claim to fame is that her prowess off the tee allowed her to play on the PGA Tour against the best players on the planet. Then again, she didn’t have any success against the guys, either. But despite all that failure – nine chances, nine missed cuts – Wie said she plans to, eventually, do it again.
“I really love playing in men’s events (because) I learn so much from them,’’ the congenial 19-year-old said earlier this week. “I’m not saying I want to play against them in a couple of weeks – but, definitely in the future.’’
This is the mystery of Michelle Wie – we kind of understand the rationale behind the thinking of this part-time Stanford student, and yet we don’t know anything at all. Obviously, Wie is doing it her way, but she certainly seems misguided (lost?) at times.
Perhaps that happens when you go through several agents and a dozen caddies while making Hollywood movie star-like money as a teen-ager. And certainly all those past disqualifications that snapped defeat from the jaws of victory didn’t help, either.
Then there are Wie’s overbearing parents, who keep pointing her in directions that seem way beyond her years.
That was the other spectacle that stood out like a sore thumb during Wie’s first two rounds – BJ and Bo watching every shot like silent critics in their black Nike gear, B.J. even going as far as checking out his daughter’s lies in the fairway with binoculars. Sure, Michelle has said she likes the support, but chances are it is only a matter of time before her latest agency, IMG, gets rid of Mom and Pop Wie like it did with Earl Woods.
Perhaps that will be the impetus for Wie to delve further into her game and make needed changes. Maybe she’ll even figure out why she keeps pushing irons and missing short putts, as well as why she can’t close the deal like earlier this season when she lost a three-shot lead with eight holes to play in her hometown of Honolulu.
Who knows? Maybe this youngster who was flung before the public when she was just 13 can even post her first ‘W’ and ride that momentum to bigger and better things. Certainly the talent is there as well as the fan base, said one of Wie’s biggest admirers.
“Is this the Michelle Wie tour? I don’t think so, at least not at this moment,’’ said Beth Daniel, the Hall of Famer and current U.S. Solheim Cup captain who works as an analyst for The Golf Channel.
“But Michelle is a media buzz, for sure, and she’s also big with the fans. I will say this: She has the potential to do for our tour what Tiger did for the PGA Tour. I think most people are hoping she finds her game and does all that. But the reality is, since she was 13, 14 or 15 – or around that age — she hasn’t lived up to that potential.’’
Daniel is center-cut. And the cold, hard truth is that this might be a make-or-break season for Wie, as most of her multi-million-dollar contracts with companies like Nike, Sony and Omega are in the final year and probably need a break-through performance to be renewed for similar money, a reported $12 million annually.
But the same could be said about the LPGA, which is in dire straits in places like Arizona, Florida, South Carolina and, yes, Hawaii. Now if Wie could just reach back and start playing like “the Big Wiesy of old’’ (granted, it sounds like an oxymoron for someone who will be 20 in October), maybe she AND the LPGA could benefit greatly?
The whole scenario kind of reminds me of something that happened Friday as we tagged along with Wie. On her 14th hole she finally smashed a 310-yard drive that blew past both Hurst and Ciganda. The big bomb brought this response from her well-meaning father, who was positioned 200 yards down the fairway.
“Nice shot! Chop-chop!’’ B.J. Wie sort of shouted to no one in particular.
The translation for chop-chop, which is Chinese slang or Pidgin English, is: “Get going and be quick about it.”
It was the only thing I heard the elder Wie say all day, and the irony was he could easily have been speaking for everyone who cares about the future of the LPGA.