On the side of a mountain hugging the edge of the Sierra Nevada, Michelle Wie is anxious and a bit nervous to tee it up with the men on the PGA Tour for the first time this year.
“I still get butterflies,” said Wie, who the Reno sports books have made a 500-1 longshot in her first PGA Tour event since the Sony Open in her home state of Hawaii in January 2007.
“It's a cool kind of excitement,” the 18-year-old part-time Stanford student told reporters before she began practicing this week for the Legends Reno-Tahoe Open that tees off Thursday.
“It's almost like right before you go on a roller coaster " like kind of half-scared, half really excited, knowing everything is going to be all right,”
Not everyone is convinced it will be all right.
Annika Sorenstam said at the Women's British Open earlier this week that if Wie can't qualify for a women's major, she has no business playing with the men. David Leadbetter, who has worked with Wie for years, blamed her family for making bad choices and said she has more to lose than gain by playing at Reno this week.
But Wie said she doesn't care that some are critical of her decision to accept a special exemption to play at the event while the top 50 players in the world are elsewhere, playing at the World Golf Championships in Ohio.
“There are going to be criticisms entering this tournament, but at the same time, I'm just doing what I feel like I want to do and it's going to be a lot of fun,” said Wie, who birdied three of her first four holes during Wednesday's pro-am.
It will mark Wie's eighth time playing on the PGA Tour, and she missed the cut each time before. The only time she has made money playing against men was on the Korean Tour, in 2006, at the SK Telcom Open, but she said she doesn't dwell on that.
“All I'm thinking about is trying to play some good golf. How can I limit the number of bogeys I make? How can I maximize the number of birdies I can make out of this golf course and that's all I can focus on. I can't focus on the rest of the field,” she said.
“People are going to write hateful stuff about me and that's fine with me. ... Good rounds and low scores can solve everything.”
Michael Stearns, the new director of the tournament, said Wie and her family turned down several invitations to play here before finally accepting late last month. He said he only wanted her to play if it worked for her.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” he said Wednesday. “I happen to believe she's a great player. Who's on the list here who won a U.S. Publinks at age 13?”
“Michelle is a hero to a lot of girls who are thinking about taking up the game. To look at her and see all these negative comments and to stand tall and say, 'I'm still staying true to my heart and I want to be the best golfer I can be' says a lot to me in the game of life not just the game of golf,” he said.
“I just took a call from someone in the Bay Area who wanted to know what time Michelle is playing.”
Past winners at the Reno event celebrating its 10th year " it's first with a title sponsor " have parlayed the victory into a spot at the World Golf Championships the following year, including defending champion Steve Flesch, Will MacKenzie (2006) and Vaughn Taylor (2004 and 2005). Others like Scott Verplank (2000) and John Cook (2001) have used the stop in the Sierra to jump start the latter years of their careers.
Ben Crane, who tied for sixth at Reno in his breakout year in 2002, is the highest ranked player in the Reno field at 87th, followed by Ryan Moore (90), Jonathan Byrd (96), John Rollins (114) and Nick Watney (124), who played his college golf just over the mountains at Fresno State.
Crane, who is 52nd on the money list with $1.2 million, is one of the co-favorites listed at 20-1 along Moore, Ken Duke, Eric Axley and hometown hero Scott McCarron, who plays out of the host Montreux Golf & Country Club and thinks the 7,472-yard course that Jack Nicklaus designed through towering pines and mountain streams fits Wie's game.
“You have to hit it high and far. I've watched her and she certainly does both of those,” McCarron said.
Others in the field include David Duval, Steve Elkington and Tim Herron.
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