Wie Back With the Big Girls

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STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. (AP) -- Michelle Wie worked her way through the bag before pulling out the club everyone came to see: the driver.
 
Shortly afterward, the little white ball was soaring toward the blue sky, finally returning to earth some 300 yards away.
 
''Wow,'' a fan murmured, shaking his head.
 
And this was only the driving range at Eagles Landing Country Club.
 
The 13-year-old Wie returns to the LPGA Tour this week, playing the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in suburban Atlanta on a sponsor's exemption.
 
The eighth-grader has already shown she can hang with the big girls by finishing ninth at the first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
 
Now, after spending a few weeks working on her short game, she'll try to improve on that showing against another strong field -- albeit one that lacks Annika Sorenstam, the world's most dominant female player.
 
''Kraft Nabisco was a really great week,'' Wie said Thursday, looking rather refreshed after an overnight flight from her native Hawaii. ''I had a lot of fun. It gave me a lot of confidence, so I think I can play well.''
 
This will be the fifth tour event for the 6-foot-tall Wie. She missed the cut the first three times, but soared into contention at the Nabisco by shooting a third-round 66 -- the lowest round ever by an amateur at a major championship.
 
That earned Wie a chance to play in the final group with Sorenstam on Sunday. The teenager faded from contention with a 76, missing several short putts on the back nine.
 
Nevertheless, it was a remarkable performance that left Nancy Lopez shaking her head.
 
''If you don't watch who's hitting and you see the ball take off, you would think it's a man hitting it,'' said Lopez, the host of this week's tournament. ''It's so hot coming off the club, so high.''
 
At the Nabisco, Wie was longer off the tee than Sorenstam and just about everyone else. The teen-ager's swing is smooth and effortless, drawing comparisons to Ernie Els.
 
Then again, Wie still has some work to do on her short game. She's changed putters since the Nabisco and spent more time than usual on the practice green. She'll probably use the driver on just a few holes this week, hoping to manage the intricacies of the 6,187-yard layout with her lesser clubs.
 
''She needs to be more strategic,'' said her father, B.J. Wie, who will be caddying for her this week.
 
While the demands of sudden fame would be overwhelming to many teenagers, Wie seems completely at ease. She exposes the braces on her teeth with frequent smiles, and refers to just about everything as ''cool.''
 
On the course, though, Wie has developed a work ethic beyond her years.
 
''The good part is all this attention makes her work harder,'' her father said. ''She's becoming more responsible. Before I had to push her to work harder. Not anymore.''
 
Somehow, Wie manages to find time to squeeze in the semblance of a normal life. She still likes to hang out at the mall. She took a shop class at school last semester.
 
''It was pretty fun,'' Wie said. ''We made, like, a foldable chair out of wood.''
 
Then again, everything seems to come easy for this prodigy. Already fluent in English and Korean -- her parents' native language -- Wie is studying Chinese because her father believes that will help expand her marketing opportunities down the road. She doesn't seem to have any trouble mixing schoolwork with the extensive amount of time spent on the golf course.
 
''I just do everything in the car,'' Wie said. ''They tell me I'm a really fast learner, so, like, other people take like two hours to do their homework. I finish in like 15 minutes. I don't know how I do that.''
 
Wie insists that she's still eight or nine years away from joining the LPGA Tour full-time. She wants to attend college -- Stanford is her early choice -- and believes she can satisfy her competitive juices with amateur tournaments and the occasional foray into the pro ranks.
 
Lopez, who joined the tour at 19, hopes Wie sticks with that plan.
 
''I missed a part of my life,'' Lopez said. ''You're only young once.''
 
Wie isn't setting any barriers on what the future might hold. She wouldn't mind following Sorenstam, who is taking the week off to help prepare for her historic appearance against the men at the Colonial next month. The youngster might try to qualify for the Masters in the next few years through a male event such as the U.S. Amateur or Public Links championship.
 
And to think: Wie didn't play in her first tournament until she was 9. No wonder she talks about the changes in her game over the past couple of years like it was ancient history.
 
''When I was 11 or 12 -- now it's a lot different,'' Wie said. ''I've been working with my coach more on my swing, my putting and short game, and my overall game. So my level of golf is a lot better.''
 
With plenty of room to grow.
 
Related Links
  • Full-field scores from the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship
  • Full coverage of the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship
     
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