The 81 Michelle Wie put up during Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Women’s Open was all the ammunition the legion of Wie detractors needed.
Same old Wie, they surely were thinking, more hype than hope. Too bad her spot in our national championship hadn’t gone to someone who might actually make it to the weekend.
This kind of mentality has had some merit in the past, especially in 2007. Wie did play atrociously and, at times, her behavior wasn’t any better. Those who were disgusted with the attention she generated, as well as the sizable endorsement deals, suggested that this huge talent was destined to go down as a huge dud, and it was difficult to counter their cynicism. Each poor score and, moreover, each poor decision by the Wie camp reinforced this perception.
Yet that was last year, and despite the 81, there are enough signs to indicate that anticipating a failed career for Wie would be as foolish as the premature talk of stardom that surfaced when she was 12 and continued for the next four years, even as the losses piled up.
Start, for instance, with how she negotiated her way around Interlachen Country Club on Friday, the day after the 81, which had included a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe it 9 on the par-4 ninth hole.
Wie easily could have given up. Instead, she grinded from the first tee to her final putt, going 2-over through 17 holes before darkness suspended play. No, she will not make the cut, but she did make a point. She’s not the same overwhelmed teenager whose swing and psyche seemed so hopelessly lost in 2007.
“I’m feeling very confident about my game right now,” she declared. She said that on Thursday, immediately after the 81.
Most importantly, the injured wrists that plagued her for much of last year have healed, allowing her to hit her booming drives with the power she consistently generated during her glory days of 2005 and 2006. She has worked hard with her famous instructor, David Leadbetter, and the work has been paying off. Wie wound up sixth at the Ladies German Open earlier this month, and while the competition wasn’t exactly formidable, sixth place is, well, sixth place. Then came the tie for 24th at last week’s LPGA event outside Rochester, New York. For Wie, who qualified for the Open, these performances signify a substantial improvement.
In addition, the time away from the spotlight, and the generally low profile she maintained as a freshman at Stanford, has benefited her. Whenever she teed it up last year, especially as her troubles mounted, Wie became the story, even more than the more accomplished players who were in contention. Being the lead actor wasn’t the proper role for her. She needs to play a supporting role first, at least until she wins something, whenever that comes.
No doubt the Friday round could have been better. Wie made the turn at 1 under for the day, with two par-5 holes soon ahead. If she could go 3 under on her final nine, she probably would make the cut.
Unfortunately, she found the bunker at No. 2 and couldn’t reach the putting surface in two. On the next hole, another par-5, her pitch to the green landed about 8 feet from the pin and spun back, all the way off the green. Those were the kind of things that happened to Wie on a regular basis last year. Yet to her credit, she hung in, escaping with pars on both holes. Still, time was running out. She bogeyed three of the next six holes, and that was that.
“I just couldn’t make any putts,” a disappointed Wie said Friday evening before getting in her van.
Of course, her recent improved play is only a step in the right direction, not hard evidence that she likely will become the player she was two or three years ago, when she consistently contended in the majors, or the player many still think she can be in her 20s and 30s. She has a long way to go with her swing and her course management. She will have to keep working hard and accept the bad times that come often in this unforgiving game. Like the grit she displayed on Friday, she will have to grind on the days after she shoots an 81.
Another challenge will be the competition. As Wie has stagnated these last 18 months or so, other teen golfers have thrived. Many are here this week, outplaying Wie, showing a glimmer of their tremendous promise.
The future remains bright, but it also remains uncertain. After where Wie was last year, it could be a lot worse.
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