Bumps in the Curious Road of Michelle Wie
She pulled driver from her neon pink-and-black golf bag, aligned herself toward a green 290 yards away at the farthest end of the practice range, and gave it a rip. She finished with only one hand on the club after hitting a snap hook. Shaking her head, Wie tried again and got the same result, at least keeping both hands on the club.
One more try.
This one reminded a dozen people watching why there is such a fuss over the 17-year-old from Hawaii. It was a majestic shot, never leaving its target until it landed on the front of the green, bringing a satisfied smile to Wie's face.
Then she shot 75 in the final round of the Samsung World Championship, closing out her LPGA Tour season with her worst score against the women all year.
'Sometimes you have to take a step back to get better,' Wie said.
That snapshot on the range at Bighorn summed up the first year of the most famous golfer without a professional victory.
There were times when Wie simply dazzled.
She was tied for the lead on the back nine of three LPGA majors, a shot or two away from being the youngest major champion in history. She received worldwide attention during a detour to Canoe Brook, the New Jersey golf course she made famous by nearly becoming the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open.
And there were times when everyone wondered what in the world Wie was doing.
She withdrew midway through the second round of the John Deere Classic with heat exhaustion. Worse yet were the scores that followed in two more forays against the men -- dead last in the European Masters and 84 Lumber Classic in consecutive weeks.
'Those two events left a sour taste in everyone's mouth, including hers,' swing coach David Leadbetter said. 'Having the skill level is only one aspect of this pie. It's a challenge. This is the route they've taken, and it's unusual. She's very much a pioneer. If she's successful, it will have been the right thing. If not, they'll castigate her.'
Starting her senior year in high school, having finished her fourth year playing the maximum LPGA events allowed without joining the tour, and still searching for a victory that would quiet her critics, Wie is determined not to look back.
She jokes about leaving the John Deere in an ambulance -- 'At least they could have turned the siren on,' she said -- and delights in six top 5s on the LPGA and having her first legitimate chance to win.
'Just the taste of it wanted me to do even better,' she said. 'That excitement was the best. It made me so motivated. I practiced like no other year.'
But as she sat in the clubhouse at Bighorn, her posture changed -- upright, arms folded across her chest -- when asked if she sensed a shift in public opinion about her grandiose plans of taking on men and women around the world.
Since she was 13 and first competed against the men on smaller circuits, Wie has been criticized for not playing against her own age group, her own gender and for turning pro before leaving high school. She ignores most of it.
But she is not deaf.
'I'm not going to lie,' she said. 'It's not like I have an insult-proof shield around me. Some stuff is so ridiculous I don't even care. But obviously, some stuff does affect me a little bit. It's like, 'Why would they say something like that when they don't know me?' But you've got to accept it. There's nothing you can do about it.'
She has met with two PGA TOUR stars who know something about criticism.
At the European Masters, Wie had lunch with Sergio Garcia. He reminded her that he finished last as a 19-year-old in his first major as a professional, the '99 British Open at Carnoustie, then finished one shot behind Tiger Woods in his next major at Medinah.
Two weeks ago, she met with Phil Mickelson, whom the media constantly nagged over his failure to win a major. That changed when Mickelson won the '04 Masters, and he has captured one major each of the last three seasons.
'People that want to write bad stuff about me were waiting for those moments, waiting for when I do actually play bad,' Wie said. 'All summer, they really had nothing to write about. Bad days are going to happen, followed by good days, followed by bad days. The only thing really important to me is that everyone around me still supported me.'
Her supporters see the big picture.
Wie maintained a 3.8 grade point average at Punahou School in Honolulu. She played 14 tournaments, not including two stages of U.S. Open qualifying, made six TV commercials for her corporate sponsors and had several other endorsement obligations. In only eight starts on the LPGA Tour, she earned $730,921, which would put her 14th on the money list.
Her earnings on and off the course will approach $20 million this year, making her the richest female in golf, and she already has donated more than $1 million, primarily to help children who can't afford medical care.
Two words summed up her year -- hectic and happy.
'I just love going to school and then playing in tournaments,' Wie said. 'I kind of have a dual life almost. It's a lot of fun. I like changing back and forth between different worlds.'
With that comes more scrutiny than any other golfer this side of Woods.
'When you have a talent like that,' Cristie Kerr once said, 'you're always going to have a little controversy around it.'
Skepticism about her unprecedented path reached an all-time high the last two months as Wie hit the first slump of her career. She did not break par in her last two LPGA events, sandwiched around her last-place finishes in the European Masters and 84 Lumber Classic against the men.
Wie called that 'growing pains' and conceded she had a lot to learn in making out a schedule. She traveled nearly 20,000 miles across 12 time zones in September to play those two men's events, and the results were predictable.
'If they learned anything, they have got to schedule better,' Leadbetter said.
He said the Wie family will meet in December to map out a strategy for 2007. The schedule will change, but not the way some of her critics would prefer. She is not about to abandon her dream of competing against men.
'I'm a very stubborn girl,' Wie said. 'I have to do what I want to do, and what I want is a combination. I'm working on this as a really long-term goal. You're going to have ups and downs in that process.'
Wie has one more tournament this year, the Casio World Open on the Japan PGA Tour in late November.
She likely will start 2007 at the Sony Open in Honolulu, and while she has not made the cut in six tries on the PGA TOUR, not everyone is losing interest in this unusual plan.
'We haven't changed our feelings,' said Clair Peterson, tournament director of the John Deere Classic, who plans to offer her another exemption. 'People lose sight of the fact that ... she's a terrific talent. People are interested in the talent. Tiger was invited as a 16-year-old to play in the Nissan Open, and no one worried about it. He didn't make a cut until he was 19.'
Woods, however, grew his legend by winning three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs and three straight U.S. Amateurs, along with an NCAA title at Stanford. Wie improves on the LPGA Tour each year, although the knock on her is that she hasn't won.
'She has all the talent in the world,' Juli Inkster said. 'It's what she wants to do with it, what she can do with it. You can have the best swing, the best putting stroke, the best chipping. But you've got to play the game. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.'
Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.
Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.
Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.
So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.
How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:
1. Stay healthy
So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.
Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.
Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.
2. Figure out his driver
Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.
That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.
In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.
Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron.
Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”
That won’t be the case at Augusta.
3. Clean up his iron play
As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.
At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.
Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.
That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.
Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”
4. Get into contention somewhere
As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.
In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.
“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”
Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.
And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go.
“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”
Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.
Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA
Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.
The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.
According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.
Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.
The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.
Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.
Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.
“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.
Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.
Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”
With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.
Thomas was asked about that.
“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.
“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”
Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.
“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.
“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”
Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.
“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”
Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.
“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.
Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.
McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.
“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said. “That's what he said.”
The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.
The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.
“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”