On fast track, Wie drives interest in Open


July 01, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

TIRED OF TIGER'S slump, his whining and denials?

Waiting for the British Open to root again for the loping, lopsided-smiling Phil Mickelson, golf's new Arnold Palmer?

Do you think Annika Sorenstam, the Colonial PGA groundbreaker/newsmaker, is so last year's golf epiphany?

If so, let's call it a date with Michelle Wie this holiday weekend. Chaperone mandatory.

The 14-year-old, 6-footer from Hawaii who comes with John Daly drives but not his smoking, drinking or gambling habits, will headline the field at the U.S. Women's Open.

That's saying something, maybe a little too much, considering 29 former majors champions are in the field, including Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Grace Park, Meg Mallon, Liselotte Neumann, Betsy King, Laura Davies and Juli Inkster.

There might have been one more old-time favorite, like Patty Sheehan or Dottie Pepper or even JoAnne Carner, had the USGA not given Wie a coveted exemption, which she deserved, even at the expense of a sentimental journey for some player old enough to be Wie's mother - or grandmother.

Don't think a few of the veterans didn't express a little bitterness about Wie's invite, which makes you wonder: How much jealousy can the LPGA afford from certain players irritated by the instant stardom heaped upon Wie, left to defend her U.S. Open invitation?

"I feel like I deserved it because I earned my way here," she said. "There's a lot of ways to qualify for this tournament. And one way is to qualify, another way is to get exempt by money ranking, and another way is to get an exemption. And I believe I got exempt because I played in three LPGA tournaments, I got 28th in the money list, so I would be exempt for this tournament. And that's all I have to say."

It doesn't matter that the LPGA has been searching for ways to attract bigger audiences, more sponsors and bigger purses. That includes a few image-enhancing suggestions on hair, makeup and sexier golf togs, which may explain how this year's Open offers more than $3 million to the field.

The LPGA has seen over the past three years double-digit hikes in TV audiences, galleries, cable ratings and Internet traffic, according to LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw. Now there's Wie, who, like Tiger, represents a youthful shot in the arm for the tour.

This weekend, there is an unprecedented number of teenagers in the U.S. Open field.

"Sixteen teenoms," Votaw said by phone yesterday from The Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass., where the Open will start this morning.

"You can see the pipeline of young talent is pretty full," he said.

As the first amateur to gain a special exemption to the U.S. Women's Open, Wie leads the way, even with greater successes from some of her peers. That includes 17-year-old Paula Creamer, who finished second in the ShopRite event last week, just missing a playoff by one stroke.

That no amateur has won an LPGA event since Carner in 1969 proves that Creamer can steal some of the thunder and media coverage from Wie this weekend. But all of it? Not a chance.

It's a stretch to say Wie can win this Open, not against a field as stocked with steady veterans as this. It would be great if Wie won, or at least wildly interesting if she were in the hunt Sunday.

But the real questions are: Will she cry, like she did after the final hole at Kingsmill in Williamsburg last Sunday, when she failed to defend her historic title at the Women's Public Links?

"That was the first time I cried on the golf course, except for the time I was 10 on the Public Links and I was losing, I was crying during the round, I cried when I was playing. But I never really cried that hard in a long time. I think it was good," Wie said Tuesday upon her arrival at the Orchards.

Will she draw the ire of fellow golfers, the way Wie did last year in a made-for-reality-TV nightmare?

There was 17-year LPGA veteran Danielle Ammaccapane, 40, ripping Wie (then 13) and her caddie daddy, B.J. Wie, for poor course etiquette.

Wie hit out of turn, was too fast in her walk up to the ball, and walked in the putting line of Ammaccapane. Meanwhile, her father complained to tournament officials that Ammaccapane brushed or pushed Michelle, who looked clueless and said: "I was really surprised, because I guess I've always played with really nice people."

USGA spokesman Marty Parkes couldn't dodge the situation, noting: "Down the stretch it was a little frosty."

Caddie daddy no longer carries daughter's clubs during other tournaments, having learned that a tournament course is no place to further cocoon her.

However, B.J. Wie will be on the bag this weekend. No one knows me better, she said. But does he know the course?

"You don't find greens like that in Hawaii," B.J. Wie said after the Wie family's foibles at Pumpkin Ridge confirmed that a local caddie with knowledge of the course might pull better clubs and make better shot suggestions.

Still, Wie has already invited unending comparisons to Tiger Woods, Freddy Adu, LeBron James, Venus Williams, Ty Tryon, Pat LaFontaine or Jennifer Capriati and any other teen phenom who proved ready for the big time. That's why she'll tee it up starting today.

"There are as many train wrecks in the list of `teenom' athletes as there are success stories," Votaw said with a note of caution.

"We are thrilled when Michelle comes out and plays in one of our events, but we are mindful of the fact that she's 14. We want her to develop as a person as well as a player."

This holiday weekend, Wie marches on and doesn't care who stands in her way. If Wie is for real or a train wreck waiting to happen, all eyes will be on her.

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