Where Wie Belong

By Randall MellMay 22, 2009, 4:00 pm
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LPGA Tour _newCORNING, N.Y. ' Michelle Wies golf ball lost its orbit and tumbled back to earth about 295 yards from the tee box at the 16th hole Thursday in the first round of the LPGA Corning Classic.
 
Her drive came to rest three steps short of the green, 70 yards or so beyond the drives of Laura Diaz and Kristy McPherson.
 
When Diaz finally reached Wies mammoth shot, she shook her head.
 
The veteran let the rookie know she wasnt that impressed.
 
Michelle Wie
Michelle Wie has two top-3s in six starts entering this week's event. (Getty Images)
What? You couldnt hit it 10 more yards? Diaz cracked.
 
Though it had been a long, grueling day for this entire threesome, Wie smiled. LPGA veterans are learning Wie can take good-natured jabs, and she can give them out, too.
 
Thats what youre beginning to hear with Wie playing her third consecutive week, the most weeks she has played in a row on the LPGA since she began teeing it up with pros in 2002.
 
With the exempt privileges she won at LPGA Q-School last winter, Wie gained more access to the tour than shes ever had before. When she plays the State Farm Classic in her next outing in two weeks, it will be her eighth LPGA appearance this season, equaling the most she has played in a single season.
 
Slowly, this increased exposure is allowing Wies colleagues to begin to breach the protective wall thats kept outsiders at a distance.
 
Players with that whole iconic thing going on can be a bit of an enigma, said Val Skinner, a six-time LPGA winner and Golf Channel analyst who followed Wies group on Thursday. But theyre still people. They still need friends out here. I think that will be an important part of Michelles growth. The other thing is that the more comfortable she feels out here, the more its going to help her to win.
 
After a sluggish start with a 1-over-par 73, Wie rebounded with a 67 Friday, but it will take a monumental effort if shes going to break through for her first victory at Corning with the leaders running away. Still, there is progress on other fronts. Theres increasing connection with fellow players and more time finding her place in the regular rhythm of tour life.
 
The frost is coming off some relationships.
 
The best example of that is Morgan Pressel, the fourth-year pro who was once so at odds with the way Wie snubbed the junior ranks and then the LPGA to pursue her quest to play against men.
 
Morgan likes Michelle, said Herb Krickstein, Pressels grandfather.
 
Pressel and Wie were paired together in the third round of the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International last month.
 
Ive enjoyed some conversation with Michelle this year, and Ive just gotten to know her better than I did, just because shes out here more, Pressel said. Shes a great girl.
 
Thats not an assessment you would have heard from Pressel when they were emerging on the national scene together on such different paths.
 
Its definitely been different since shes been out here this year, said Pressel, 21. I wouldnt say there was tension when she was out here before, its just that a lot of girls didnt know her. When shes only playing six or seven events, and doesnt spend a lot of time in the locker room or the dining area and stays to herself, its a little different.
 
Thats not to say Wie, 19, is suddenly a social butterfly. She isnt. Theres still often awkward separation in her status and circumstance.
 
In Fortune Magazines list of The Top 10 Endorsement Superstars in professional sports in 2007, Wie ranked fifth with an estimated $19.5 million in endorsements. She ranked ahead of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and trailed only Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, LeBron James and Dale Earnhardt. Today, Golf Digest estimates Wies total endorsement worth at about $12.5 million annually.
 
That makes Wies life different.
 
Theres a lot that goes on around her with her entourage, Pressel said.
 
That would mostly be Wies parents, B.J. and Bo, who remain an almost constant presence in their daughters life.
 
The couple watches almost every shot Wie takes, in tournament rounds, pro-ams and even practice. Where sympathetic eyes see loving devotion, suspicious eyes see border-patrol officers regulating movement.
 
I dont think people understand how a certain part of it is very cultural, says IMGs Nickole Raymond, Wies manager.
 
Raymond sees what others dont, Wies evolving as a person and player who will eventually find her own independent path.
 
Michelle is only 19, Raymond said. She is a rookie who can be a little shy and intimidated with other players, but when she opens up, people will see theres a cute, fun and smart girl inside.
 
While Wie speaks often about how close she is to her childhood friends in Hawaii, Raymond sees new friendships forming on tour.
 
Jeehae Lee may be Wies closest friend in the LPGA ranks. Lee is 25, a fellow rookie with big sister credentials. She was born in Korea and moved to Agoura Hills, Calif., when she was 13. Shes a Yale graduate with a degree in economics.
 
Lee lives in ChampionsGate in Orlando, Fla., where she first met Wie, who also has a place there.
 
Coming through Q-School in December, the experience tightened their bond. So have numerous practice rounds together.
 
In the past, Michelle would show up for one tournament and not interact with anyone, thats what I would hear, Lee said. I dont think shes out here to make friends, but I think its important to her to be liked. I think shes beginning to feel more and more comfortable with everyone, and she is finding her place out here. Michelle is a sweet person and really funny. Everyone who has gotten to know her on a personal level realizes how sweet she is. Ask every single person who really knows her, they like her.
 
Wie says having the freedom to play more often helps.
 
All the players have been really nice to me, and getting to play every week has been a lot of fun, Wie said.
 
Count third-year pro Irene Cho as another friend to Wie on tour. Cho joined Lee, Wie, Raymond and Wies caddie, Gary Matthews, for dinner Tuesday night at the Corning Classic with no parents in sight.
 
Most of the time, Michelle is with her parents, but she gets time to herself here and there, Lee said. Michelle and I have things in common. We understand each others family situations, her parents and my parents. I sympathize with her. She doesnt have problems with her parents, but they can get to be overbearing, and I understand that.
 
Lee says people shouldnt overlook the benefit Wies strong relationship with her parents brings, but as there is with all teens growing into adulthood, there are issues of independence.
 
Thats not specific to Korean culture, a lot of parents are over-protective, Lee said. For somebody whos been so protected by her parents, she wants this life for herself, just as badly. She will thrive even without her parents. I think she is going to do great things.
 
Lee said Wie has matured quickly in the limelight.
 
After she went through Q-School, shes like, `I feel like I really belong here now. She really appreciated the fact that she got her card and she really does cherish it as much as anyone else out here, Lee said. Michelles been playing a long time, and shes had her ups and downs and she feels pressure like everyone else and she makes mistakes like everyone else. I feel like she deserves to be cut a little break. Shes obviously a tremendously talented person with a huge amount of potential she hasnt realized yet.
 
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