For her next stunt, Michelle Wie should spend the rest of the summer reading "To Kill a Mockingbird."
She's done the PGA thing now. She's shown that women can play golf with men, and so can a 15-year-old girl phenom in dangly earrings. She's demonstrated that your average male PGA Tour player is not in fact a Leonardo da Vinci, he's just a golfer. And she's made idiots out of those skeptics and self-appointed experts who said she was hype, that she didn't belong in a men's tournament, and that she was just a publicity gimmick.
Yesterday, Wie, a teenager with a habit of pushing her lower lip out in a glossy little pout, almost did the unimaginable. For 14 holes, she threatened to become the first woman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias 60 years ago to make the cut in a men's tournament. Had she not made a late double bogey and bogey on two of her final four holes, with a couple of tired swings, she would have qualified for weekend play in the John Deere Classic. But she didn't -- and it was a blessing. Wie should be working through her summer reading list, not playing on the PGA Tour.
Wie has plenty of time to play. Watching Wie hit her ball around the lengthy 7,183-yard, par-71 TPC at Deere Run course alongside players like Stewart Cink and David Toms evoked much the same feeling as that scene in "Jaws," when Roy Scheider catches his first glimpse of the huge killer shark, and turns to Robert Shaw. "You're gonna need a bigger boat," he says.
What's interesting about Wie is that she hasn't actually won anything yet, or proven much -- except the fairly critical point that gender is becoming irrelevant in golf. She is a 6-footer, slim as a blade, who can launch it 290 to 300 yards off the tee, and she seems all but impervious to pressure, spearing shots straight into the greens. It's only when she plays with her bracelets, and fiddles with her earrings, between shots that you remember she's just a girl. "She might not be the best 15-year-old female in the world, she might be the best 15-year-old, period," USA network commentator Ian Baker-Finch said.
But while Wie's performance is worth celebrating, it's also potentially disquieting. On the one hand, you have to love the fact that she obliterates the women's tees, and raises the thorny and fascinating question of just how long, exactly, we're going to need separate tours for men and women. On the other hand, Wie is also evidence that age is becoming irrelevant in golf, too. And maybe that's not such a good thing.
The important question is not whether Wie belongs in a men's tournament. She's answered that one. The important question is whether kids belong in pro tournaments at all on a consistent basis. What's refreshing about Wie is that she is playing while others in the tournament are working, and that's how it should be.
Wie's carefree performance comes at the very same time that Morgan Pressel, 17, is pressing the LPGA for an exemption to its age restriction of 18, so she can turn pro early. Paula Creamer, 18, won an LPGA event earlier this year.
We've seen what happened to other sports that were invaded by teen angels, namely women's tennis, gymnastics and the NBA. How long before golf is populated by uneducated flameouts who buckle and warp under the workload, the pressure of expectations, white hot lights and overbearing stage parents? One of the nicer things about the sport up to this point is that both pro tours are made up primarily of college-educated players who are articulate, well-mannered and mature, who can sustain long-term careers and connect with their audience. The NBA has learned what happens when a sport gets into the business of child rearing, and that's why it has pushed so hard for an age limit that forces players to spend at least a year in college. Phenoms are tantalizing and compelling in the short term, but they can also be short-lived, aloof, big trouble and bad for business.
Wie is clearly a player with immense ambition and plenty of stamina. It's a wonderful thing to watch her expand her abilities -- and by extension those of all women -- when she enters the occasional LPGA event or the rare PGA event. But occasional is the key word. Wie needs to remain an amateur and strictly a sometime player, at risk of ruining that fabulous talent that was on display in the John Deere. It's the best way to ensure that she becomes the great and long-lived player she should be.
The fallacy about phenoms is that they need to be pushed. There is a perfect blueprint of how to raise a champion available to any who wish to examine it. Just look at the career of Chris Evert, who started playing in pro tennis events in the summers when she was just a schoolgirl. Her parents, Jimmy and Colette Evert, turned down a fortune, and insisted their daughter finish high school before she joined the tour full time. All that bought her was 15 years at the top, and a ton of Lipton Tea commercials. And even Tiger Woods played three years at Stanford.
Yet, too many leagues, and too many parents, have followed all the worst examples instead of the best, under the mistaken impression that patience and education are somehow an impediment to success.
There are already whispers that Wie needs to win something, soon, if she wants to keep up with the other teens. Still just a teen, she has finished second twice on the LPGA Tour this year, including a runner-up finish at the LPGA Championship -- and somehow that's not good enough? The kid hasn't even won her driver's license, and she's under pressure to win LPGA tournaments.
Wie's appearance at the John Deere was just the first event of a long summer of golf for her. Next week, she plays against men again in the U.S. Amateur Public Links at Shaker Run Golf Club in Lebanon, Ohio, where she will try to qualify for the U.S. Open. After a week off, she goes to Europe for two LPGA events, the Evian Masters in France and the Women's British Open. Then she will play the U.S. Women's Amateur. That means five tournaments in six weeks, in three different countries. It's hardly a restful summer.
Fortunately, Wie has said she is considering college. She has even talked about going to a university while playing the on LPGA Tour part time. It's not a bad strategy, as proved by 19-year-old Brittany Lang, who chose to take her career more slowly, enrolling at Duke instead of hitting the LPGA Tour after high school. All she has to show for it is an NCAA championship and a runner-up finish in the U.S. Open. Why not go to Duke, or Virginia, or Stanford, get a platinum education, play pro golf in the summer, and do an end run around the pressures?
Wie is clearly up to the pressure -- that's not the point. In the John Deere, her rounds of 70 and 71 for a total of 1 under par suggest that she belongs on any course, against any field. "Still finished under par," she said, "guess that counts for something." The point is that no 15-year-old, no matter how much of a sensation, should spend too much time on a pro tour, whether male or female. Teenagers should be reading "Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby," and the rest of the books on their summer reading list.
They should be doing things for the edification of the young, as opposed to playing in tournaments for the richification of grown men.