Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2014

Wie’s Win Adds To LPGA’s American Year

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life was traveling for business on Sunday evening, which delayed this post by one day.

It is hard to believe that it was almost nine years ago. Entire playing careers in sports have begun, run their course, and ended since Michelle Wie left the ranks of amateur golfers by announcing her decision to turn pro one week before her 16th birthday in October, 2005. While still a child Wie had become the then-youngest golfer to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, doing so at the age of 10 in 2000. At that same tournament she became the then-youngest player to advance past the opening stroke play rounds into the match play portion of the event.

Those were but two of many “youngest ever” or “first female” records set by the already-tall phenom from Hawaii. Youngest winner, male or female, of a USGA adult event with a victory at the Women’s Amateur Public Links three years later. Prior to that, youngest entrant in a LPGA event in 2002, and youngest to play the weekend at a LPGA tournament when she made the cut at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2003. Youngest participant in the Curtis Cup when she was a member of Team USA in 2004. First female to qualify for a USGA national men’s event when she made it all the way to the quarterfinals of the 2005 Amateur Public Links. Along the way Wie also became the fourth and of course youngest woman to compete in a PGA Tour event.

Even after turning pro Wie continued to focus as much on competing against men as on trying to gain playing status on the LPGA Tour. Urged on by her parents and by sponsors like Nike and Sony who had eagerly inked the teenager to multi-million dollar endorsement contracts. She continued to accept sponsors’ exemptions into PGA Tour events as well as men’s tournaments in both Asia and Europe.

The publicity made her the most recognizable female golfer in the world; but even as her bank account grew fat critics feasted on the fact that among the careers seemingly running their course in that time was Wie’s. By the end of 2006 and her first full year as a professional, she had missed the cut in 11 out of 12 men’s events and was winless in all 33 women’s tournaments she had entered as either an amateur or a pro. She failed to break par in her last 14 competitive rounds of the year. None of that seemed to matter to Wie’s handlers, who were far more interested in building her brand than her resume.

Other women on the LPGA Tour took notice. By early 2009 there were a few who were quite willing to point out that while Wie had climbed as high as 4th on the Forbes list of top earners under 25, she had done so while recording just six top-10 finishes on the LPGA Tour as a professional, matching what she had done as an amateur. But about that same time Wie herself, about to leave her teenage years and by now carrying a heavy course load at Stanford while still attempting to compete, finally seemed to take notice as well.

That spring she dropped the William Morris Agency, the Hollywood talent group that had been promoting her, in favor of sports agency IMG. While she remains close to her parents, she also finally began to climb out from under their smothering protective cloak and insistence upon competing against men. Later that year, made a captain’s pick for Team USA at the Solheim Cup, she made the most of a valuable opportunity to stay and build relationships with other women on the Tour. Finally that fall Wie broke through, winning the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico by two shots over Paula Creamer.

In the Hollywood that the suits at William Morris dream of, that initial LPGA Tour win would have been followed by a string of others, climaxed by a triumphant return against the men, say at the recently concluded U.S. Open at Pinehurst #2. But the real world tends to give short shrift to Hollywood fantasies. It was eight months before a second Tour win materialized, and fully three and a half years before that was followed by a third. Injuries slowed Wie’s progress, though not nearly so much as a balky putter. In 2012 she ranked 119th in putting on Tour, even as the spotlight shifted to younger players like Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko.

But along with her growing maturity Wie also found a new level of resolve. In but the latest of a long line of examples that golf is not a game where there is a single right way to swing any club, she adopted an unorthodox putting stance in which she bends fully ninety degrees at the waist, her back as flat as a tabletop. Like Jim Furyk’s full swing it may not look pretty, but for Wie it began to get the job done. Her putting rank improved to 53rd last year and this season she is 39th on Tour with the flat stick. In April she was outdueled by Thompson in the final round of the Nabisco, the first women’s major of the year. Two weeks later she scored that third Tour win.

On Sunday, in her 23rd major as a professional, Wie was one behind world number one Stacy Lewis after the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open, played this year back-to-back with the Men’s in the Carolina sand hills. A second straight 68 moved her into the lead, three clear of Thompson after Friday’s second round. A 2-over par 72 on Saturday left her tied with Korea’s Amy Young heading into the final 18.

Wie began the final round with a bogey, but after eight straight pars she separated herself from the field with an eagle three on the 10th hole. Lewis had stormed to a 66 in the final round to post even par in the clubhouse, but Wie still led by three shots with just three to play. But at the 16th an ill-advised approach shot led to a plugged lie in a waste area near the green. The end result was a double-bogey and a lead that was suddenly only one. But the one-time phenom turned mature young woman responded with a 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th, and her first major title.

With Lewis atop the world rankings, Creamer winning again, Jessica Korda already winning twice this year, and Thompson and now Wie taking the first two majors, American women golfers have come storming back from their collective low point last August; when they were trounced by Team Europe at the Solheim Cup. Suddenly they are starting to dominate the LPGA Tour as they have not done in years. Now Michelle Wie has joined their number, a testament to the value of maturity and the power of resolve. Her success is also a reminder that in most good plays, the key parts of the drama don’t take place until the second act.

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Responses

  1. Really nice-thanks!


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