Team Wie: Lingering Problems

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - June 13, 2007

What happened to Michelle Wie?

The once internationally beloved and celebrated golf star has seen some of her luster tarnish over the past year. Questionable professional choices, poor on-course performances and suspicious tournament conduct are whipping her critics into a frenzy and challenging even her staunchest fans’ loyalty and patience.

Wie is, of course, different from anybody else in the game of golf. We first took notice of her when she was only 10, and she carded a 64 to become the youngest player to qualify in a USGA (United States Golf Association) amateur championship. If you don’t think this is major league stuff, then you gotta ask yourself what you were doing when you were 10.

She tasted victory in a USGA event, becoming the youngest winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. This is such a huge accomplishment and by the end of the 2003 season, Michelle made five cuts in six LPGAtournaments catapulting into the top echelon of golf.

The year 2004 was a good one for Wie. Although she missed the cut at the Sony, it was only by one stroke. She went on to finish fourth in the first major, the Kraft Nabisco, and played for the United States Curtis Cup Team.

The following year also was a good one. Her second place in the LPGA SBS Open at Turtle Bay and a second-place finish (to Annika Sorenstam) in the LPGA Championship were highlights for 2005. But it was a few days before her birthday in October 2005 when Wie made the announcement heard round the world: She was turning professional. Her primary sponsor is Nike, and the inevitable comparisons to that other Nike phenom, Tiger Woods, begin in earnest.

It seems that soon after turning professional, bumps in the Wie Superhighway begin to appear. In her first pro start, Wie is dis-qualified because of a rules infraction. She then plays in a men’s professional event in Japan and misses the cut by a stroke, ending her competitive season.

The beginning of the golf schedule for Wie in 2006 is the SONY. Despite missing the cut, she is ranked No. 3 in the world among women. Wie goes on to a heartbreaking second place to Karrie Webb in the first major, the Kraft Nabisco, makes the cut in an Asian men’s tournament and advances to the sectional qualifier of the U.S. Open, the first woman to do so. She doesn’t win, but she stirs up the world of golf - again.

The new year brings a season of difficulty for Wie. Her beloved SONY Open appearance is a disaster with an injured wrist as her only prize. This injury, along with an injury to her other wrist from a fall, will haunt her until today. On top of that, her poor finishes in the latter part of 2006 are still fresh in our minds. She required medical attention for heat exhaustion during another appearance in a men’s tournament, she finished dead last in a European PGA event in Switzerland, and last again in another men’s tournament in Pennsylvania. Press coverage and golf punditry is decidedly more critical of Wie, her decisions, her camp and, of course, her game.

These criticisms are not without fuel from Team Wie. The abrupt and impersonal firing of her caddie Greg Johnston left a bad taste among tour insiders. Special treatment to accommodate Wie in LPGAevents rubbed her peers the wrong way. Negative comments regarding Wie’s dad and sometime caddie, BJ, concerning course etiquette were embarrassing.

But the latest controversy may be tougher to remedy.

Wie returned with great fanfare to competitive golf at the invitation of Sorenstam. Wie assured the press she was ready to go, and other players who witnessed her game thought she was in good form. As her opening round began, Wie’s troubles did, too. Jumping to the proverbial chase, Wie was stinking up the course. As she approached the 17th tee, she was already 14 over par and in danger of shooting a score of 88 or more. Since she is not a member of the LPGA, she would have lost playing privileges for a full year if she went two over with two to play. After consulting with her manager, Wie announced to the rules official she was withdrawing because of her wrist injury. She ostensibly skirted the Rule of 88 by quitting.

If this were not bad enough, Wie was spotted miraculously practicing two days later at the site of the next tournament. She participated in the pro-am tournament and seemed in top form. The obvious question: If you are too injured to finish one tournament, how can you possibly play in the next?

The seriousness of this sentiment cannot be diminished. This time it is not preferential treatment, the conduct of her caddie, her desire to play the men’s tour or even the quality of her game that is the issue. Now, the issue is her ethics. In the game of golf, the only unforgivable infraction is being unethical.

If it is perceived that Wie has compromised the spirit of the game for her own personal agenda, she will become a pariah. Fans will reject her, sponsors will abandon her and the press will eviscerate her if it is determined she was disingenuous about her withdrawing from the Ginn Classic.

I hope for the sake of her career and for the strength of the LPGA that Wie is able to resolve these issues and begin playing golf again. The one thing Wie had while playing back in the day was a lot of fun. Maybe fun is reserved for those in an age of innocence and not iconoclastic multi-millionaire teenagers.

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