Golf Star Michelle Wie feels like she's starting over

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Michelle Wie has seen her picture in Christmas catalogues for Sony. She has heard the shutter of cameras on the golf course on three continents, and felt the stare of thousands of people at an awards banquet in Paris.

So she was mildly concerned such celebrity treatment would follow her to Stanford as a freshman, but those worries didn't last long. Two of her roommates didn't even know who she was.

"They said, 'We hear your name is Michelle Wie,"' she said. "They didn't know what I did."

There was a time when the 6-foot teenager from Hawaii would walk onto the putting green at the U.S. Women's Open and players far more accomplished would stop to watch. A dozen or so photographers would camp to the side of the green, watching her every move.

But she was just one of the girls Tuesday afternoon at Interlachen, still taller than most, now older than some.

"It's kind of weird being on the putting green and not being the youngest person," she said with a laugh.

Indeed, she will play the first two days of the U.S. Women's Open with Kimberly Kim, a 16-year-old from Hawaii.

Wie is an old 18.

She has been a fixture at the biggest event in women's golf since she qualified in 2003 after finishing the eighth grade. She was tied for the 54-hole lead at Cherry Hills when she was 15, tied for the lead with six holes to play a year later at Newport.

That all seems like ancient history.

Wie showed up at Interlachen looking for a new start, hopeful she is on the road to recovery.

"I feel like I'm re-emerging as a new player, a new person," she said Tuesday. "I feel like I'm never, ever going to think about last year again. I'm not ever going to think about before I broke my wrist. That was then and this is now. I feel like from now on, I'm only going to think about now."

She is coming off three straight events that once would have looked ordinary, but now look promising. Wie finished sixth in the Ladies German Open in Europe against a weak field, then breezed through 36 holes of U.S. Women's Open qualifying, the first time she has had to earn her way into a tournament since the ninth grade.

Last week on the LPGA Tour, she closed with a 69 and tied for 24th.

When she was 15, that would have been her worst finish of the year. Now, it is called progress.

"Right now, golf is getting a lot more fun," she said. "I know I'm not fully recovered, but I feel like I'm getting there. This past year, I've been able to become a better player and stronger player than I ever was before. And I feel like I'm on the road to that. I want to be able to prove to myself how much better I can be."

But there are some things she can never get back - mainly, her youth.

What allowed Wie to bring so much excitement to women's golf was her age and her ambitions. Annika Sorenstam's caddie, Terry McNamara, shook his head in a mixture of wonder and sadness when he recalled being in the final group with her at the Kraft Nabisco Championship when Wie was only 13.

Youth was a large part of her appeal, but now she blends right in on a tour loaded with youngsters.

Morgan Pressel won the Nabisco last year at age 18, the youngest major champion in LPGA history. Earlier this month, 19-year-old Yani Tseng of Taiwan won the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

Tseng was 15 when she rallied to beat Wie for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links title.

"I don't know what's her problem," Tseng said when asked why Wie had struggled so much. "I just feel maybe she needs to play more tournaments in the LPGA and she needs to get more experience."

She picked up experience in humility, some of that from injury, some of that from going through U.S. Open qualifying.

Wie was not forthcoming with her wrist injuries last year, and still claims loss of memory on such details as how long she was in a cast and how much time she spent away from the practice range.

She completed only 19 rounds on the LPGA Tour and broke par only twice. In the three tournaments where she played 72 holes, she finished a combined 91 shots out of the lead.

Wie used to be a hot ticket for all the majors.

The McDonald's LPGA Championship was only for pros until it changed the criteria in 2005 to allow Wie to play as an amateur, and she tied for second. The U.S. Women's Open gave her an invitation in 2004, claiming the money she would have earned in LPGA events would have made her eligible.

Those free passes are no longer valid, not after the debacle last year.

So it was a big step when Wie, the picture of entitlement in women's golf, signed up for a 36-hole qualifier for the U.S. Women's Open. She was more worried about the heat than failure, and she handled both. Wie shot 137 and finished second.

That was a small step.

"I think it made me realize how much of an honour it is to be here, how much of a privilege it is," she said. "It's been a long time since I had to qualify for something, and it made me want it even more. I think going through that qualifying humbled me a lot as a player, as a person. Sometimes, you have to go back to your roots to become a better player and a better person."

Maybe she can get back to the level she reached when she was 16, still in high school, the top attraction in women's golf. She had at least a share of the lead on the back nine of three majors that year.

Everyone knew where she was, and most of them cared.

"I don't think I've reached my full potential," Wie said.

But she can never be 16 again. There are other players her age, just as good.

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