EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE -- The sense of inevitability is overwhelming.
It's not a question of if Michelle Wie will win an LPGA event, but merely when. Having finished in the top five in the quintet of women's tournaments she has played this year, it is only obvious to ask if this might be the week when she gets her breakthrough victory.
Certainly, there is a lot of golf yet to be played at the Evian Masters and the flaws Wie has shown come late in tournaments rather than early on. Still, the 16-year-old's 66 in Thursday's second round at the Evian Masters Golf Club sent a wave of excitement rippling through the galleries and raised expectations. Those on hand just might witness history -- the youngest LPGA champion ever.
Making birdies on four of the first seven holes, Wie, who started the day three strokes behind first-round co-leaders Lorena Ochoa, Shani Waugh and Mi Hyun Kim, finished 36 holes at nine-under-par 135, tied with Ochoa, who fought her way to a 69, and Karrie Webb, who posted a 68 in the second round. Se Ri Pak was one stroke back at 136 with Kim at 137.
If Wie is able to walk away with her first LPGA victory it will be after holding off a leaderboard that certainly lends credence to this tournament being called the Evian Masters. Heading into the final 36 holes, the top 10 included not just Webb, Ochoa, Pak and Kim, but also U.S. Women's Open champion Annika Sorenstam, who was tied at 138 with defending Evian champion Paula Creamer and Lorie Kane, a four-time winner during her LPGA career. Laura Davies, who needs two more LPGA victories to gain entrance to the Hall of Fame, was at 139 along with Waugh.
Yet with all the veteran glitter at the top of the leaderboard, it was Wie who held up the best in the withering afternoon heat on Thursday. Webb double-bogeyed No. 13 and bogeyed No. 16, Sorenstam missed four-footers on No. 16 and 17, and Ochoa made three bogeys in four holes beginning on No. 12.
Wie, meanwhile, played a bogey-free round. "I still feel like I left a couple of shots out there," she said. "I could have made a couple of more putts today." Five of her six birdies came on putts from 10 feet or less as she maneuvered her way around the 6,283-yard course by hitting very few drivers.
Wie got the kind of break you get when you win on No. 18, when she pulled her drive into the left trees -- letting go of the club with one hand on the follow-through -- only to have the ball bounce back toward the fairway instead of deep into trouble, ending up in the short cut of rough. From there, she was able to play a smart lay-up shot short of the hazard protecting the par-5 green and safely make par.
"I was fortunate enough to get a good bounce," she said with a smile, leaving unsaid the fact that she was also smart enough to not follow the good break by gambling with a 5-wood and going for the green. It was a decision that represents the continuing maturation of her all-around game.
The Evian Masters Golf Course, which has been baked by a week of suffocating heat, played to an inconsistent speed on Thursday. Some areas retained the water thrown onto the course by the maintenance crew while other parts were like a dusty road. The greens, which by Thursday were taking on the yellow sheen of aged wax on a kitchen floor, also had soft and hard spots, which made for a bumpy ride with the putter. Quite simply, the course, like the players, was totally at the mercy of the brutal and highly unusual heat. None of that seemed to matter to Wie and others who pushed the lead well into the red numbers.
The low score of the day at Evian gets a gram of gold courtesy of UBS, one of the sponsors, and the prize on Thursday went to both Wie and Karen Stupples, who made the best comeback of the day, posting a 66 on top of her opening round 78. Meg Mallon also made a nice move, making five birdies in a row beginning on No. 3 on her way to a 67 -- the next best second-round score -- to be at three-under-par 141 after 36 holes. In all, she needed only 24 putts.
Ochoa, who had three goals in the soccer game in which a team of players and caddies defeated a team of Evian staff 9-8 on Wednesday evening, got to 10 under par through nine holes of the second round before stumbling coming in. She and Webb both had a chance to catch Wie with a birdie on the last hole, and both made the most of the opportunity. Webb rolled in a five-footer and Ochoa followed with a two-putt birdie after missing a 20-foot eagle putt that would have left her alone in the lead.
How does a teenager wind down after shooting a 66 and putting herself into position to win her first professional tournament? "Putt a little, hit a couple of balls, rest -- I took a lot of sun today -- eat a good dinner and maybe go on the Internet," Wie said. After that Internet session it will be time for some sleep, and for the next two nights -- if her quest for victory is to remain on course -- Wie will fall asleep with visions of the best players in women's golf in her head.
In Sorenstam, Wie, Ochoa, Webb and Creamer, you have the top five in the Rolex World Rankings, in that order. The sponsors at Evian couldn't ask for anything more. And knowing Wie, who has always insisted she is all about being unique, she wouldn't want her first victory to come against any less. To win she will have to go head-to-head against the best in women's golf. Two days -- and 36 holes -- will tell.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine