Wie Is the Star but Trails at Bulle Rock

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md., June 11 -- The leader board alongside the 18th green at Bulle Rock Golf Course did not include Michelle Wie's name when she arrived there Thursday afternoon. Yet the gigantic television screen just to the right showed Wie's face as she chipped up to the pin, showed her wave as she walked off the green, and showed her relaxed, post-round interview with the Golf Channel.

This for a player who sat five shots off the lead of the McDonald's LPGA Championship, a player who has not yet won on the LPGA Tour -- who, in fact, last won in 2003, when she took the U.S. Women's Public Links title at age 13. And yet more people witnessed her opening round, a 2-under-par 70, than watched Nicole Castrale finish a splendid 65, giving her the first-round lead.

Thus the dichotomy this week and every week in the LPGA: Michelle Wie is 19 years old, a rookie, and she is the player with Nike's swoosh on her hat, her shirt, her glove, her ball, her shoes. She is the tour's biggest draw, even though she has yet to draw up a win.

"The LPGA certainly needs her," David Leadbetter, Wie's swing coach, said after her round. "You can see the crowd. There's sort of a story about her, and everybody waiting to see, 'Okay, what's she going to do?' "

So this week, in her 56th LPGA event, that question lingers. Will Wie contend for her first major title, as she did as an amateur in 2005 when she finished second to the legendary Annika Sorenstam -- still her best finish in a major? Or will she implode as she did two years ago when she finished dead last, 35 strokes off the winning score, 10 shots worse than anyone else who made the cut? Whatever the result, no other player here -- not Castrale, who is searching for her first major title, and not even top-ranked Lorena Ochoa, who shot a 72 -- has the out-of-golf name recognition of Wie, who played her first LPGA event a staggering seven years ago when she was 12.

Now, though, she is in different standing. Last December, just like other wannabe LPGA players, she went to qualifying school. And because she survived, she is now officially a tour member, albeit a rookie. Though that description scarcely fits her -- sponsors' exemptions had allowed her into several fields since her early teens -- she is enduring many of the same adjustments as other LPGA rookies, including Anna Nordqvist, who sits a shot back of Castrale after Thursday's 66.

"I definitely enjoy being a full-fledged member," Wie said. "It's just a lot of fun. I'm getting to play every week, traveling to new places and just seeing where you are.

"When you only play in six [events], if you get sick or something, God forbid, you have to play in it because you've made a commitment since the year before. Now it's just great playing in tournaments that I've played in before, and playing every week."

For a time, that wouldn't have been possible even if Wie had been a tour member. In early 2007, she fell while running, injuring her left wrist. More than a year later, she tweaked the injury on the driving range at Stanford, where she is a student, and she pulled out of a tournament. The injury dogged her deep into the 2008 season. Her swing crumbled. Her confidence followed.

"Hindsight's easy, but she shouldn't have played through that period of time," Leadbetter said. "Obviously, for a period of time, she was playing really poorly, and she was playing on her reputation alone, getting all these invites and stuff. You can do that for a period of time. After that you've got to produce the goods."

The goods, thus far, have not come, and Thursday's round showed why. Her swing is a bit more robotic and less fluid than a few years ago, though Wie still has the power to blow 30 or 40 yards past her playing partners when she pulls out her driver -- which she only did a handful of times Thursday at Bulle Rock, where conditions were so wet officials allowed the field to lift, clean and place balls in the fairway.

But Wie's irons, Leadbetter said, "aren't pinpoint accurate now," and she's not taking advantage of the positions in which she puts herself. She missed a three-foot par putt at the third, another three-footer at the par-5 eighth, a hole on which she blasted a 290-yard drive. She countered, though, with three birdies on the back side. Thus, she is in a familiar position -- secure with her place on the tour, yet not squarely in contention.

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