Acceptance of Wie no gimme

Golf: The tour's decision to invite the talented 15-year-old to play in this week's major has caused friction.

Lpga Championship

Thursday through next Sunday

Bulle Rock Golf Course, Havre de Grace Golf

June 05, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Michelle Wie has spent much of her life in some sort of spotlight, whether it meant being the only girl on her youth baseball team back home in Hawaii or being the only female in the field last year at a PGA Tour event - and nearly making the cut.

"I always wanted to do un-normal things," the 15-year-old Wie said earlier this year.

This week, she will find herself in a familiar place as the first amateur to play in the history of the McDonald's LPGA Championship, which began in 1955.

Wie, who began playing in professional tournaments when she was 12 and has now played in 20 events on the LPGA Tour, is in some ways already the biggest attraction in women's golf. Though not yet an LPGA member, she has certainly changed the way the organization conducts business.

Two years ago, the LPGA increased the number of sponsor's exemptions a player could receive from four to six. Other players quietly called it "The Wie Rule." That is now referred to in plural, given what transpired with what had been a pros-only event.

The invitation to play in the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock came in January after it was announced last summer that the tournament would move from its longtime home in Wilmington, Del., to the 7-year-old course in Havre de Grace. According to several LPGA players, part of the deal included bringing Wie.

"McDonald's said this is what we want and, if you don't do it, then we're pulling out," said two-time LPGA champion Juli Inkster. "Last year, we said no and this year they strong-armed it a little more. It's just the principle. You just can't be changing rules for one person, regardless of who it is."

Though LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said that the rules were changed to invite "a leading amateur," as well as five other non-LPGA members from a number of foreign tours, it has left many questioning the decision to alter the eligibility criteria.

"I'm all up for Michelle. She's more than what everyone talks about," said Grace Park, one of the tour's emerging stars. "But this is an LPGA Championship, not a Nabisco Championship, not the U.S. Open Championship. It's the LPGA Championship, for only LPGA players."

The LPGA players are not the only ones who seemed a bit perturbed by Wie's invitation.

"It depends on what you define as an amateur," said Herb Krickstein, whose 16-year-old granddaughter, Morgan Pressel, has a better amateur record than Wie. "Her entry was based on professional tournaments where she was the only amateur to get exemptions."

Frank Quinn, who serves with Herb Lotman as the tournament's co-chairmen, said there were no ultimatums from McDonald's to the LPGA to invite Wie.

"It was never that strong," Quinn said. "We did want her. When you look at the compromise that's been worked out, the amateur they want, the best person from the Japanese tour, the best person from the European tour, and so on, I think it's made us a much better tournament than we were before."

Not that Wie is without support among the LPGA's rank-and-file. There are some, such as former two-time LPGA champion Laura Davies of England, who are happy that Wie will be coming to Maryland. Never shy to share an opinion, Davies questions those who think Wie shouldn't have been invited.

"My opinion is that anyone who doesn't think she should get an invite is crackers," Davies said. "She's great for the tour, and anyone who says she doesn't like it is very shortsighted. She's exciting, and we need excitement."

Wie was also given sponsor's exemptions to this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she finished tied for 14th after finishing in fourth last year, as well as to the Weetabix Women's British Open and Evian Masters in France next month. Wie also qualified for the U.S. Women's Open later this month at Cherry Hills outside Denver by finishing tied for 13th last year.

Matter-of-fact reaction

Asked earlier this year whether she was surprised to be invited to play in the LPGA Championship, Wie sounded more like a teenager talking about being asked to the prom than a player who has finished half of her 20 LPGA appearances in the Top 20, including nine of her past 10.

"Well, you know, I wasn't really that surprised," she said. "I mean, I guess I was surprised in a little way ... but given the fact that it's sponsored by McDonald's and it is a sponsored event, I mean, you know, I wasn't really that surprised."

Nor was hardly anyone else. Ever since she started showing up at LPGA events - a tall, skinny pre-teen trailed by her father, B.J., and mother, Bo, at a tournament in Honolulu three years ago - Wie has been attracting crowds and drawing comparisons to her golfing hero, Tiger Woods.

The LPGA is not the only golf organization capitalizing on Wie's celebrity.

After being invited the past two years to the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Hawaii, where she missed the cut by one stroke last year and by seven this year, Wie was given a sponsor's exemption to next month's John Deere Classic.

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