With every shot, Wie proves she belongs

June 11, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

Michelle Wie teed off in the second round of the LPGA Championship yesterday at 7:15 a.m., so early that there probably were more tournament volunteers than spectators on the Bulle Rock course.

But the gallery following Wie, the 15-year-old phenom from Hawaii, swelled in size throughout the cloudy, humid morning.

A roar echoed across the course when she rolled in a birdie putt on her 12th hole to reach 4-under par for the tournament.

By the end of her round, a crowd as large as any on the grounds was trailing Wie and rooting for her to continue closing in on the leaders.

Wie isn't the biggest story in women's golf - Annika Sorenstam is - but she has become the second-biggest story, and with all due respect to Sorenstam, quite possibly the biggest attraction.

The women's game has never seen a 6-foot high schooler who hits the ball out of sight, plays like a veteran and seemingly would rather take on male pros than her female amateur peers.

But what a sight she is.

She is perched among the leaders at 4-under through 36 holes at Bulle Rock, and you can be sure the LPGA would love nothing more than to see her remain in contention all weekend and maybe even win.

That's the one Bulle Rock result that would generate headlines rivaling those being made by the NBA Finals, the likes of which women's golf never sees.

Imagine the story line: Last week, she takes her final exams; this week, she wins her first major.

But regardless of how Wie plays this weekend, she is among the best things to hit her sport in years, a genuine shooting star who hasn't even turned pro yet but has already been profiled on 60 Minutes.

Some LPGA Tour members are upset with their tour for bending its qualifying rules and giving her an exemption to play here this weekend - she's the first amateur in the event's history - and while you can see their point, they need to consider the bigger picture.

There are lots of sports and leagues and games out there, but there are only so many eyes, and the LPGA gets lost too often for its own good. It needs Wie.

That doesn't mean veteran Juli Inkster, a two-time LPGA Championship winner, was wrong to tell The Sun's Don Markus, "You can't be changing the rules for one person, regardless of who it is." A sport can undermine its credibility when it does that too often.

But rules are changed every year in every sport, every league, every competitive situation. Adjustments are constantly made to address changes and trends, whatever they are.

In this case, a smaller sport went to lengths to get its shooting star onto one of its biggest stages. That's not wrong. That's just common sense.

It's not like the LPGA tinkered with the rules to let in some piker. Wie is so good that she could have qualified for the event on her own. She finished second in an LPGA Tour event in February. She only played in seven events as an amateur in 2004, but she would have finished in the top 50 of the earnings list if she had been a pro.

Watching her blow away playing partners Maria Hjorth and Katherine Hull yesterday, it was clear that she belongs, that her appearance here this weekend is anything but token.

The one marginal player who was knocked out of the field by Wie's invitation couldn't possibly have made the event any bigger, better or more interesting.

"Do you feel like you're proving something to the people who wondered whether you should be here?" Wie was asked in a TV interview after yesterday's round.

"I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anyone," she said.

(Asked about it before the tournament, Wie said, "It's not like we lobbied for this. It's like, they gave us the invitation. All I did was receive it and accept it. It was a great privilege.")

She's a for-real 15, having recently "stressed" over exams and started driving. But she's anything but callow on the course. Yesterday she was long and straight off the tee and hit most greens with her irons. She didn't make many putts, but she was seldom in trouble.

"My game feels solid. I [have] played two solid rounds," she said. "Tomorrow, I hope to make some more putts. Who knows?"

She is charting a course unlike any taken by any golfer before her. She'll probably play the Women's British Open instead of the U.S. Amateur this summer. She has played in two PGA Tour events and is set to play another next month.

She's fresh, original and oh-so gifted, and anyone who thinks she didn't belong at Bulle Rock this weekend needs to blink hard, check out the size of her galleries and think again.

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