Wie faces mixed bag playing against men

September 16, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Farmington, Pa. -- Toy dolls dangle from her golf bag, and shiny pieces of jewelry hang from her ears. She receives marriage proposals from the gallery, and has a calculus test waiting around the corner.

Of course Michelle Wie sticks out at a men's golf tournament, but don't interpret any of these differences to mean she doesn't belong. Fresh off her worst 18-hole score since turning professional nearly one year ago, Wie can expect the critics to raise their voices to newfound volumes.

Yesterday's 158th-place finish at the 84 Lumber Classic marked the second straight men's tournament in which Wie missed the cut by finishing last. She supplied plenty of evidence for those who think she's making a mockery of the men's game, who say it's criminal to accept sponsor exemptions and then fail to shoot even Arnold Palmer's age.

Wie has now missed the cut 10 times in 11 men's tournaments (she made the cut in an Asian Tour event in May). And though she's played well against the world's best women, her scores against the men seem to be regressing. Her second-round 81 yesterday was her highest all year. She finished 13 strokes behind the cut line and 23 behind the leader.

Yet, she maintained a positive - chipper even - demeanor.

"Even though my score wasn't great - it was actually quite bad - I didn't feel like it was actually that bad because I felt like my game was 100 times better than last week," she said.

It's that kind of optimism that will keep her coming out and competing against the men, and it's the best argument to throw in the face of naysayers.

Several on the PGA Tour are upset because Wie's taking up a valuable spot in the field they feel should go to someone else. "That's where I draw the line," says Chris DiMarco, a past winner here. "Does she deserve to be out here or does somebody who's put in time and effort deserve that?"

But most others now focus their criticism on her abilities, saying Wie's just not good enough and might be better served by playing against women. (Of course, there's no furor over the players who've earned their Q-cards yet struggle each week. Wie's two playing partners at the 84 Lumber Classic have combined to miss 60 cuts in 91 tries. Who's going to propose they would be better served on the Nationwide Tour?)

Though Wie's scores in the past three men's tournaments suggest she might be getting worse competitively, you can actually see her growing as a competitor.

Yesterday the crowds gathered early. Even the sun seemed to want to see Wie play, poking its head through the clouds when she stepped onto the first tee box - and then promptly disappearing when she posted her first bogey on No. 2.

The young golfer unraveled on No. 4, hooking her drive, barely clearing water but landing out of bounds. She took a double bogey and then followed it with bogeys on each of the next two holes.

But Wie kept her cool. There was the occasional huff, sigh and grunt; she tugged her cap over her eyes on the second hole and then on No. 3 lightly kicked her club head as she walked. But that's nothing compared with what you see during many men's rounds. One of her playing partners was so irritated yesterday that he tossed a ball into the water in frustration.

Whether it's youthful naivete or newfound toughness, Wie is able to let go of the bad shots, one of the hardest things about this game and something Wie struggled with when she turned pro last October.

The biggest concern with these bad scores and low finishes should be their long-term effect on the golfer's growth. A weaker mind would lose confidence and might never recover. But Wie responds to adversity with a shoulder shrug. The brain game is fine; it's her short game that's atrocious.

"I'm not getting more comfortable with disappointment. I am feeling more comfortable playing out here, though," said Wie, who has been working with Florida-based sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr. "I feel like I have more of an idea of what I have to do and where I have to go and what I have to work on."

Inside the ropes on both the PGA and LPGA tours, you can feel the resentment boil. But outside the ropes, Wie is a rock star. She is the most exciting thing to hit the tour since Tiger Woods turned pro a decade ago. By the time she made the turn yesterday, her followers stretched from tee box to green.

It was a partisan crowd, the kind usually reserved for the Tigers and Phils of the PGA Tour. The fans walked yesterday with three players struggling to make the cut while the leaders were somewhere else, competing in a vacuum.

Two distinct conversations took place as Wie played. The cheers battled the whispers.

"Great shot!" the gallery screamed.

"I could've made that," the Sunday golfers whispered. "Keep your head up, Michelle!" boomed to the sky. "Why's she even here?" fell to the ground.

"I love you!" the world heard.

"Can't putt, can't chip, can't drive. What can she do?" a voice softly wondered.

As she begins her second year as a professional, the whispers will only get louder.

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