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Next Step Win Against Women

McDonaldHAVRE DE GRACE, Md. -- Playing in the U.S. Open wasn't the only thing on Michelle Wie's mind.
Her chances of getting to Winged Foot might have been better had she stayed in Hawaii for the 36-hole sectional qualifier instead of trying to get one of the 18 spots in a large field of PGA Tour players. The one spot available at Poipu Bay -- there were only 10 players in that field -- went to 15-year-old Tadd Fujikawa, whom Wie beat by two shots in the first stage of qualifying.
But staying in Hawaii would have meant missing the McDonald's LPGA Championship, and that means just as much to Wie.
Given a choice between playing against Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open, or winning the LPGA Championship for her first major -- and first victory in three years -- Wie deliberated a few minutes before choosing the trophy.
'I think it would be to win this week,' she said at Bulle Rock Golf Club, a course that brings good memories. 'Winning this week would be really awesome.'
Annika Sorenstam is the three-time defending champion when the LPGA Championship gets under way Thursday, with designs of becoming the first woman to win the same major four straight times, a feat matched only by Walter Hagen from 1924-27 at the PGA Championship when the format was match play.
Karrie Webb is the only woman with a chance at the Grand Slam this year, having won the Kraft Nabisco Championship with an eagle from 116 yards in the 18th fairway and a 7-foot birdie putt in the playoff. The hottest player might be Lorena Ochoa, who has won twice and finished second five times this year, putting her atop the money list.
But as usual, the attention is squarely on the 16-year-old Wie.
It started Tuesday night, when she threw out the first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles' game against Toronto, which surely didn't go over well with other LPGA Tour players who sat in a private box.
The pressure cranks up Thursday at Bulle Rock, where last year Wie closed with a 69 to finish three shots behind Sorenstam. She never had a serious chance of winning, even though she trimmed five shots off Sorenstam's lead over the final nine holes.
Expectations are higher than ever.
Wie's game has shown improvement, even as her putter remains spotty, having made the cut in an Asian Tour event against the men, and showing remarkable control with her irons at Canoe Brook on Monday during the U.S. Open qualifier.
Trying to rest after a 10-hour day on Monday -- 'I felt like I was 80 years old when I woke up,' she said -- Wie didn't start her practice round until Wednesday afternoon, when gray clouds sent light rain onto the 6,596-yard course.
But as hard as Wie prepared for the U.S. Open qualifier, she spent just as much time last week practicing at Bulle Rock.
'I'm even more motivated to play better this week,' she said.
What makes these interesting times are her schedule.
As a junior at Punahou School in Honolulu, Wie rarely had a chance to play two tournaments in a row, or even two in a month. Now that school is out, she will keep a golf schedule similar to other professionals.
'We're never going to see what she's capable of until she plays a bunch of tournaments in a row,' swing coach David Leadbetter said.
This might be the time to find out.
After the McDonald's LPGA Championship, Wie heads to the U.S. Women's Open on June 29, then straight to the Women's World Match Play Championship. Then she goes to the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour, followed by consecutive weeks on LPGA Tour at the Evian Masters and Women's British Open.
'I feel like I can go to the next step,' Wie said.
She didn't always feel this way. It wasn't until last summer that Wie, who possesses enormous power with a golf club, honestly believed she was capable of winning. She shot 82 in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open, and that turned out to be the last time she finished out of the top three in an LPGA event.
'I felt like my ability was good enough and I had enough potential,' Wie said. 'And I felt like during the winter I worked hard enough. So hopefully, it will show this summer.'
Two other teenagers also have big hopes.
Paula Creamer, 19, has gotten off to a slow start this year, and she showed up Wednesday with her right wrist wrapped by a bandage. An MRI showed a sprained ligament, and she said it hurts at impact, but she fight through it.
Morgan Pressel just turned 18, which coincided with her high school graduation. The U.S. Women's Open runner-up turned in her strongest performance of the year last week, and tends to thrive on tough courses.
Pressel has made some of the strongest comments about Wie, once noting that she was doing her 'woo-woo thing with the men.' But she considers Wie a friend, and harbors no ill will toward the Hawaii star for playing against the men.
'She can go over to Japan and play for a guarantee, as much money as some of our purses,' Pressel said. 'Why would she want to come play in LPGA events when she's making lots of money. I wish she would play more on the LPGA Tour, but she's got it made.'
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