No putts about it, Wie has a hole in her game

Lpga Championship

June 12, 2006

The kicker for Michelle Wie and her gallery came on the 16th hole. What a coincidence.

History was three holes away, even after so many close calls and heartbreakers. The masses following her around Bulle Rock on the final day of the LPGA Championship were ready to push her over the top. She had just gotten her third birdie in five holes, boosting her within one shot of the lead. The tingle was running through everybody nearby, as if lightning had struck the course.

Then Wie hit probably the worst second shot of her weekend. Then, after setting herself up for a save out of the rough, she watched (and the crowd looked on in horror) as her par putt spun around and out.

Then, for about the hundredth time from the hundredth different person within earshot of the green yesterday, came a consoling voice, almost parental. Maybe it only sounded that way because, of course, Wie is 16 years old. But every mother trying to soothe her young daughter after she struck out, or let in the game-winning goal, or blew the easy word in the final round of the spelling bee, sounded like this woman did.

"It's OK, Michelle," the voice said.

In the grand scheme of things, it was OK. In this tournament, it wasn't. Wie missed a birdie putt on No. 17. Missed a very tough birdie try on 18 that would have added her to the playoff with Karrie Webb and eventual winner Se Ri Pak. Then missed the come-backer.

All that promise at hand with three holes left, and she went bogey-par-bogey. Not quite the stuff champions are made of, at any age.

With each putt Wie couldn't get down yesterday came the roar of anticipation, followed by the "Oh!" of exasperation. It became her theme song. The big exception was on the par-3 17th, when a birdie would have made for a drama-soaked finish - but her 10-footer started breaking wrong from the moment she hit it.

That inspired a loud sigh of resignation, and an exodus, heads hanging, toward the 18th tee before Wie even got to her ball again. Better luck next major, kid.

The rest of Wie's game is absolutely filthy, and it was yesterday, when she had the best chance of her meteoric career at winning a championship. It was all there for her.

Except for her putter. It went missing at the start of last week in her quest to cross the gender line in the U.S. Open, and it was still missing yesterday. It was like watching Shaq shoot free throws. Listening to her explain it sounded almost the same, as well (with less bass in her voice and fewer nicknames for herself).

"I felt like I hit every single putt where I wanted to," she said, pausing, then adding, "It felt like every putt was going to go in, but they didn't." She paused again, then mentioned her next time on the hot seat, the U.S. Women's Open in 2 1/2 weeks. "I'll just have to work on my putting a little bit."

What else can she say? She's the Golden Child, but her hands turn to clay with a putter in them. If it takes her another two years to get it right, she'll still only be 18. But that's two years of hearing endlessly about a glaring flaw in a masterful game, about the hype outrunning the reality, about being 0-for-10 so far in majors.

But if she's lucky, along with the naysaying she'll also get the cocoon of support she got on the course yesterday.

For starters, two youngsters followed her around, each with a sign: "Wie Will, Wie Will/Rock You!"

On No. 6, when Wie missed a fairly short birdie putt by inches, a male voice boomed as the ball was rolling, "Get in the hole, get in the hole, get in the hole!" When it didn't, a female voice soothed: "Hang in there, Michelle."

One hole later, another birdie putt barely missed, and she walked to the back of the green to calm down. From the gallery: "She can't buy a putt." "She's gotta make 'em." "She's right there." Then, from a nearby marshal - as Wie's playing partner Shi Hyun Ahn lined up her own par putt - "Quiet!"

On it went, with a brilliant shot, an annoying missed putt, a shout of encouragement, until there were no holes left. At least in terms of her play, it was almost a carbon copy of her Open qualifier.

"That was a first-time thing for me, so I didn't really know what to expect," Wie said. "I wanted to make it, so obviously I was a little disappointed. But today it was really frustrating that I couldn't get my putting going on a couple of holes. So it was very frustrating in that sense, but I still felt like I learned something."

A lot, actually. One lesson came soon after she finished talking to reporters, when a huge cheer rolled over from the 18th green. Pak had just hit the playoff shot to within inches that won her the title.

Of all the joyous noises Wie has heard so far, she hasn't heard that one. Yet. And she knows exactly why.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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