From top to bottom, Gilchrist feels for his pupils

June 11, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

As Suzann Pettersen huddled inside the scorer's trailer behind the 18th green at Bulle Rock early yesterday evening, her swing coach stood outside grinning from ear to ear, accepting handshakes and slaps on the back for his pupil's first LPGA major victory.

Nothing could dampen Gary Gilchrist's joy. Not even the spectacular flop by a big-name former student for whom he still has warm feelings and still wishes well. Nearly seven hours earlier, Michelle Wie left the site of the McDonald's LPGA Championship with far less fanfare and surrounded by far fewer smiles.

The ex-student was at the opposite end of the tournament scoreboard from the new student - dead last. Last year at this event, two shots separated her from the winner. This year, 35.

The Wie connection is not ancient history for Gilchrist, who became her first coach when she was 12 and did it for two years. But it is still history. Pettersen is the present.

"I've been teaching now for 15 years, training young kids to win majors," said Gilchrist, director of the International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, S.C., "and this is my first big one. So it's really exciting for me."

Pettersen hired him just last December, and it's hard to imagine things working out faster or better. This year, she got her first tour win, and should have won her first major back in April, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, of which she found herself reminded constantly all weekend here. Now, she has a major, and she's the hot name in the sport, hotter even than the gaggle of kids who keep threatening the hierarchy.

And, of course, hotter than Wie, who hasn't been threatening the hierarchy lately, only trying everybody's patience.

Excluding, notably, Gilchrist's. When he ran into Wie and her party earlier in the week, everything was pleasant. He genuinely feels for the professional and personal slump she's in: "You spend two years of your life with someone, of course you want her to succeed. I still believe in her dream, always have since I became her coach. I think that puts me in [a minority]," he said with a laugh.

Pettersen and Wie are, obviously, going in completely different directions. The week began with all the attention on the teenager, and it ended with her in almost complete seclusion, done playing before most of the media showed up.

Pettersen's story line, meanwhile, only grew as the tournament wore on - largely because everyone was wondering if she'd pull a repeat of the gag at the Nabisco, if she'd hold off another charge by legend Karrie Webb and if she'd actually stay poised and erase the memory of two months ago.

"This is going to be the steppingstone for her to really go to the top," Gilchrist said, while nearby fans roared as Pettersen made her way from the scorer's trailer to the green for the trophy ceremony. "I don't want to speak for her, but she wants to be No. 1 in the world, so this is that first step."

Pettersen acknowledged that goal several times afterward and indicated she's closer now than she was because of Gilchrist's presence: "It was just a big decision from the end of last year to change something that you've had for a long time. You just have to make one decision that you're going to make a change; then you need to change and commit to the new stuff."

Of course, every golfer, not to mention every other athlete, says he or she wants to be No. 1. Doing what they need to do to get there is another story. Pettersen needed fixes in her game and her head, and she made the move to fix them. What was most impressive yesterday was how she won: by holding it together, staying calm, not getting rattled by the approaching specter of Webb and her own playing partner, third-round leader Na On Min.

"I wanted to make her more comfortable and confident. It was going to improve her game," Gilchrist said. "I wanted her not to get as frustrated or disappointed if she doesn't hit a good shot. Control your emotions. I mean, look at today. It was ridiculous."

Now, Wie still wants to be No. 1. If this week got her closer to that, it was only because of the painful lessons she learned. The very idea of playing this tournament seems, in retrospect, to be a huge blunder.

"Right now with the way she's swinging, it's very difficult for her to play well," Gilchrist said. "She has no control over the ball."

Control. The current student appears to have plenty of it, with the ball and everywhere else. The former student seems to have none of it, with the ball or anywhere else. The coach was thrilled to see the lessons he instilled pay off - for one of them.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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