RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Under clear blue skies, a couple of lightning rods were the story Thursday in the first round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Paulina Gretzky made the grounds crackle here in the morning, Michelle Wie in the afternoon.
Gretzky stirred a storm over what she isn’t doing on a golf course, Wie for what she is.
Not long after tour pros teed off at Mission Hills, Golf Digest revealed Gretzky is on the cover of its May magazine. Clad in a revealing exercise outfit, Gretzky is featured in an issue devoted to fitness. She’s the daughter of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, the fiancée of PGA Tour pro Dustin Johnson and fairly new to recreational golf.
Given the last three women to grace Golf Digest’s covers aren’t professional golfers – Gretzky, supermodel Kate Upton, Golf Channel’s Holly Sonders – LPGA pros’ reactions were predictable.
“It’s frustrating for female golfers,” said two-time major championship winner Stacy Lewis, who has never been on Golf Digest’s cover. “We don’t get the respect for being the golfers we are.”
Wie knows what it’s like to be vilified for enjoying what critics believe is undeserved attention. As a teenage phenom with dreams of playing the PGA Tour, she became a lightning rod. Today, at 24, Wie’s story has evolved. Now, for many, she’s the scarred fighter getting up off the mat. She’s the former prodigy who fought through injury, disappointment and burnout to keep the dream alive.
For others, she’s still a cautionary tale.
With a 5-under-par 67 Thursday, Wie did more than move a shot off the lead held by Shanshan Feng. She rekindled some of the excitement she first generated as a teenager making runs at winning the Kraft Nabisco. At 13, in her first major championship, she played in the final Sunday pairing with a chance to win. At 14, she finished fourth here. At 16, she led late in the final round before faltering to a tie for third.
Through the highs and lows, Wie remains the most potent potential game changer for the LPGA. If she wins, she will get on more magazine covers than Golf Digest.
If she’s going to realize all that potential she was trumpeted for, there would be poetry in scripting it here.
“When you're younger you're kind of fearless,” Wie said. “You don't know what failure is. I've definitely had my ups and downs. My downs have been down. But at that, I'm just so grateful. I'm so grateful to have rounds like these. I'm so grateful just to be here. I'm grateful that I can do what I love to do. I had a blast today.”
Wie knows there’s a long way to go this week, but there have been signs pointing to something big. She played in the final Sunday pairing at the Honda Thailand last month and tied for fourth. She has two top 10s in five starts this year. She’s second on tour in hitting greens in regulation. She’s fifth in scoring.
When pressed on her goals, Wie has steadfastly asserted all season that she’s just trying to be more consistent. She believes that will lead to winning.
“I think she has come full circle, to the point where I think this is like a second coming for her, a re-birth,” said David Leadbetter, her swing coach.
Wie is seeking her third LPGA title, her first since winning the Canadian Women’s Open almost four years ago. She put a jolt through the galleries here Thursday with a torrid run in the middle of the round. Starting at No. 9, she went birdie, birdie, eagle and birdie. She holed a 40-footer at the 11th for her eagle.
The only hiccup in the round was the 2½-footer she missed for par at the 17th after she had taken a share of the lead. Even that didn’t dampen her satisfaction with the round.
“She’s just very confident right now,” Leadbetter said. “There’s this whole look about her. Her game is definitely coming around. I think she’s going to be a factor out here this year.”
Leadbetter has watched Wie’s swing come back the last nine months or so. Tentative and uncertain with her driver the last few years, she’s ripping it with authority again. Leadbetter says the confidence she has in her driver filters through her entire game. Wie agrees. She says it’s because tempo is so important to her game, and when she’s hitting her driver well, she knows her tempo is spot on.
“Listen, Michelle has something to prove to herself,” Leadbetter said. “She knows she has all the talent in the world.”
Mission Hills is the perfect stage for Wie to prove she’s still a major player in the women’s game.