Wie's bold strokes chart a new course

LPGA Championship

June 10, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

You had to get up early to watch Michelle Wie in the second round of the LPGA Championship yesterday at Bulle Rock. She teed off before 8 a.m.

The thousands of fans who came out were richly rewarded. Wie blasted long drives into the high blue sky, sank some birdie putts and finished with a 68 that could easily have been four strokes better.

"She left a few shots out there, for sure. This isn't a terribly hard course for her. I could easily see her shooting a 63 or 64 in one of the weekend rounds," said her instructor, David Leadbetter, the renowned swing coach who has mostly tutored men's champions such as Nick Faldo and Ernie Els.

Her round put her in position to compete for the championship - she finished second in this tournament a year ago - and also illustrated why many of the questions she seems to generate are irrelevant.

Is she overhyped? If you were among those who stood behind her yesterday and watched her draw back a driver and belt a tee shot, you would know to file away that question and never ask it again.

Is she, at 16, good enough to play on the women's tour? Obviously.

But given that she just ended her sophomore year in high school, shouldn't she be concentrating on playing amateur majors as preparation for joining the women's pro tour after high school, instead of charting this unique, headline-grabbing course of men's tournaments and women's pro majors?

No. Even though it upsets traditionalists, she is the rare athlete who warrants her own set of rules.

She isn't thinking about a future on the women's tour. The heck with that. She is so original she is probably thinking about playing - and winning - the Masters. She is so gifted she reduces even old-school golfers like Leadbetter to wild spins of the imagination.

Asked if Wie would eventually need to settle down and grind it out on the LPGA Tour to give her game depth and consistency, Leadbetter basically said people needed to start thinking outside the box.

"I don't see any reason why she couldn't do that [grind it out] on the PGA [men's] Tour one day," he said. "As far as she hits it already, and she's going to hit it 15 to 20 yards farther as she develops, who's to say she couldn't compete on an equal basis?"

Such comments are what fuel the indignity Wie routinely faces, especially from those in the women's game who want her to pay her dues like everyone else and eventually focus on helping their sport. But while she might, in fact, need to play the women's tour regularly one day to add maturity to her game, she's not about to commit to that now, when so many other accomplishments seem possible.

"She's very much a pioneer, a person who seems to be comfortable breaking down barriers," Leadbetter said. "It's hard to say where this is all going, because nothing like it has ever been attempted before. But I know this much: every time she plays with men [as in earlier this week, when she attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open], her game improves a notch or two."

Wie, who is 5-under par through 36 holes, readily agreed yesterday that she is on a roll in the wake of her Open experience, even though she didn't qualify.

"I feel like I'm playing really well, and if I can just get things going, I can shoot really low out here," she said.

Her retooled, Leadbetter-style swing is a marvel - watch how, like Els, she keeps the club away from her body as she draws it back and comes through, allowing her to maximize her natural power.

The one thing she needed to do better yesterday - every day, for that matter - is putt more accurately. She made some, but also slid a handful of medium-length attempts past the hole. They were there for the taking. She also pushed a couple of approach-shot irons off the green.

But hey, we're quibbling. She was stunningly consistent for the most part. Her drives split the middle of most fairways. Her irons were solid. Her putts were around the hole. She was as methodical as she was long, and as always, poised well beyond her years.

"Our plan is just to keep working on improving, seeing how far we can take this vast talent and vast potential, and whatever happens as a result, well, that's what happens," Leadbetter said. "She is already hitting shots no one else can hit. So, we're going to keep at it like this for at least another year, and then see where we stand. And in the meantime, it's sure fun to watch."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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