Print and Go Back espnW.com: More Sports

Friday, July 6, 2012
Out of nowhere, Michelle Wie in contention

By Mechelle Voepel

KOHLER, Wis. -- Michelle Wie recently graduated from Stanford. She said most of her college pals didn't know much about golf. Now, as they are venturing into the "real world," they are suddenly getting interested in the game.

"All my friends are currently in banking," Wie said earlier this week at the U.S. Women's Open. "Before, they didn't even care that I played. Right when they knew they were going to Bank of America or Goldman Sachs, they were like, 'I think I need to start playing golf.' It was funny. I had to explain to them what a par was. It's nice that I have friends that have no idea."

You certainly can understand why Wie would value that in a buddy, especially since so many people have had a lot of ideas about Wie and her golfing career.

Wie shot a 6-under-par 66 on Friday at the U.S. Women's Open, leaving her a stroke behind clubhouse leader Suzann Pettersen. Wie tied for the third-best score ever in the second round of this championship, which dates to 1946. It was the lowest score in an Open at Blackwolf Run.

"I have to say it felt pretty good to see my name on that leaderboard," Wie said. "I kind of like that spot up there."

Wie goes into the weekend in contention for the biggest prize in women's golf. The folks at NBC, which broadcasts this event Saturday and Sunday, are doing cartwheels. Wie is a name that moves the needle, so to speak: a female golfer the average sports fan readily recognizes.

That might rattle some of the folks who have criticized nearly her every move since fame hit her as a 13-year-old. What if it turns out that Wie, despite the doomsayers, is a fine golfer after all?

"For myself, I don't really pay attention to it," Wie said of the criticism waged, advice given and goals set for her by others. "For me, I have my own expectations for myself and I want to fulfill that."

She said this very pleasantly, even nonchalantly. Not angrily whatsoever. Over the years, Wie has seemed to raise ire in others that she didn't understand. Those barbs came from inside and outside the golf world.

How dare she try to play men's events? She's just a carnival sideshow. She needs to compete in more girls' junior events and actually learn how to win. Why is Nike giving her so much money? What has she done to deserve it? She's just a personality, not a player. She doesn't know the rules. She lets her parents control her life too much. She's a pro who's going to college. That shows she's not committed enough to the sport.

We've heard all of that, and then some, about Wie for the past decade. Here she is --still only 22! -- and she's been written off and dismissed who knows how many times.

"I don't know if anyone gave up on me or not," she said. "I'm sure some did, and some didn't. But I never gave up on myself. And today was a good reminder to myself that I can do it and I still have it."

Golf always has been a sport that has a love/hate relationship with its more iconoclastic individuals. There tends to be a reverence for rigidity and conformity, an adherence for the way "things are done." And yet those players who are "different" in some way always capture spectators' imaginations.

In fact, Wie really isn't all that different, especially now in her young adulthood when she talks about the realities of what it takes to win on tour, especially at a major championship such as this. In that, she sounds just as level-headed and pragmatic as anybody else on tour.

"I'm really grateful for all the opportunities that I have had and all the accomplishments I did when I was younger," she said. "But I can't really live in the past. What I did is what I did, and I'm really looking forward to what I'm going to do tomorrow and Sunday and the future, really."

Still, with her decisions over the years about her education and her career, including taking sponsor exemptions to play in PGA Tour events when she was a teen, Wie has forged a different path than most.

At times, she might have felt like a kid who wanted the freedom to color outside the lines, while many voices of the golf establishment took the role of pedantic teacher who insisted there was only one way to create a pretty picture.

Through it all, though, the fact remains that Wie has the "it" factor that helps those athletes in individual sports become stars. The other piece she has needed is results.

Wie has won twice on the LPGA tour, in 2009 and '10. Including the victories, she had 20 top-10 finishes from 2009 to '11. But 2012 has not been productive, although to be fair, she has been absorbed in finishing college. She missed the cut in six of her 10 starts this year coming into the Women's Open.

That's why she said Friday, right after her round of seven birdies and one bogey, "It's nice to know that I made the cut for sure, so that feels good. But I have two long days ahead of me, you know, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Wie has played well in the Women's Open before. In her first appearance, at age 13 in 2003, she tied for 39th, but in that event, she was confronted after the first round by then-37-year-old pro Danielle Ammaccapane for inadvertently walking in her line during play.

Wie's father, B.J., was her caddie, and they did make some etiquette mistakes in events early in her career. But the "controversies" were also fueled by crabby older players perhaps resentful about the attention the adolescent was getting.

In 2004, Wie tied for 13th at the Women's Open. In 2005, she was in the lead after the third round but blew up on Sunday with an 82 and finished tied for 23rd. The next year, Wie also led after the third round, then shot a final-round 73 and tied for third.

She withdrew during the second round in 2007, a year in which Wie was criticized for pulling out of that event and another one. Critics said the withdrawals were more about her poor play than the wrist injury with which she was dealing.

In 2008 and 2010, she missed the cut. She didn't play in the 2009 tournament. Last year, she finished 55th.

While Wie has drawn the ire of various older players over the years, others have embraced her. Two-time Women's Open champion Meg Mallon lives near Wie in Florida and is "like my second mother," Wie said.

Mallon has offered Wie friendly tips and advice. Plus, Wie now has several years of her own experience to draw upon, including the ups and downs of her best performances in the Women's Open.

"The fact that you're in contention to have a chance to win the U.S. Open is a big deal," Wie said. "I'm so grateful I have that chance right now. I'm really looking forward to seeing the crowds tomorrow and experiencing it all again."