A year older, Wie a work in progress

October 12th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: A year older, Wie a work in progress


PALM DESERT, Calif. Michelle Wie celebrated her 17th birthday Wednesday. Next up is an anniversary. One year ago at the Samsung World Championship, the 6-foot teenager from Hawaii steadied her nerves and ripped a 3-wood down the middle of the fairway to embark on a professional career that was loaded with expectations and perhaps more hype than any player in LPGA Tour history.
Expectations remain high. The scrutiny is still severe.
And one year later, the trophy case remains bare.
"Every week I go into, I want to win," Wie said at Bighorn Golf Club, where her family has bought a second home. "I'm not going to force it to happen, because it will happen."
But with each tournament _ 14 as a pro, plus a U.S. Open qualifier _ the question of "when" slowly is shifting to "if."
Strangely enough, the Samsung World Championship with its 20-player field and no cut is the only LPGA Tour event where Wie failed to earn a paycheck. She finished in fourth place, 10 shots behind Annika Sorenstam, but an improper drop in the third round that was pointed out a day later led to Wie being disqualified.
Memories are mixed at Bighorn given a rocky start to her career.
And even her first full year as a pro is bound to get mixed reviews. Wie has played only seven LPGA Tour events this year because she is not a tour member, yet she has earned $718,343, which would put her at No. 14 on the money list. Karrie Webb, Sorenstam and Wie are the only players to average more than $100,000 per start this year.
Despite not winning, Wie came within a whisker of capturing three majors.
She had a 25-foot eagle chip to win the Kraft Nabisco, missing a playoff when she failed to get up-and-down. She was tied for the lead on the 16th hole of the LPGA Championship until her wedge found a greenside bunker leading to bogey. And she was tied at the U.S. Women's Open until making bogey on the 13th hole in the final round, closing with all pars to miss a playoff by two shots.
"I guess I'm taking it patiently," Wie said. "But I feel like being in contention this year, really getting the feel for what it's like to be in contention on the Sunday in a major ... I learned a lot from that. That's the way I'm learning how to win, and I feel like it's going to happen."
What taints her year was competing against the men.
Wie rose to international acclaim as a 14-year-old player when she shot 68 in the Sony Open and missed the cut by one shot. A year later, she shot 70-71 at the John Deere Classic and narrowly made the cut.
But as a professional on the PGA Tour, she has looked more like an amateur.
An image that captured a troublesome end to her summer came at the John Deere Classic, when she withdrew after nine holes in the second round with heat exhaustion and was shown being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher.
She tied for 26th at the Women's British Open _ her only finish outside the top 5 on the LPGA _ and fired her caddie without anyone from the Wie family breaking the news. And after starting her senior year at Punahou School in Honolulu, Wie took a two-week break to take on the end and finished both times, in the European Masters and the 84 Lumber Classic.
"I have to learn how to schedule better, how much my body can take and when I should play," Wie said. "My first year, I haven't got it down yet. Obviously, I learn from my mistakes."
Perceptions of her first year as a pro depends on the size of the picture.
The most recent image is her humbling results against the men. But it is hard to ignore her close calls in three majors, along with the Fields Open in Hawaii and the Evian Masters in France.
"She has played extremely well on the LPGA Tour, and I think it's been a very good learning year for her," Webb said. "Even though her results may have been similar to last year, she's actually been in contention in the last round, rather than having a very good last round and finishing third or second or fourth. ... She should be very proud of the year she has had for someone so young."
Sorenstam never played with Wie over the last 12 months, so she was hesitant to judge her first full season.
"I must say, she's been very consistent in the majors," Sorenstam said. "But that's all I know."
Sorenstam made quite the statement last year at Bighorn. Her eight-shot victory was her fifth at the Samsung World Championship, and another victory this week would make her the first LPGA Tour player to capture the same event six times.
For all her stardom, Sorenstam was virtually forgotten at Bighorn last year before the tournament started.
The attention was squarely on Wie making her professional debut, and the interest was so high that tournament officials had to build a media tent on an empty lot near the clubhouse. This year, the turnout is typical for an LPGA event, with only a dozen or so reporters stationed in a small tent on the edge of the practice range.
Wie warmed up Wednesday morning for her pro-am round in virtual solitude, and only about two dozen people braved hot, arid conditions to follow her around Bighorn.
This will be her final LPGA Tour event of the year because she is limited to eight starts without becoming a member. Only one tournament remains, the Casio World Open on the Japan PGA Tour in late November.
Playing against men is still part of her future
"It's just going to be a long process for me," Wie said. "I'm willing to work at it. It's a lot of fun for me, so definitely, hopefully, I'm going to play a lot of men's events (next) year."
In the meantime, she will try to fill that trophy case.

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