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Wild Card Wie

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the continuing development of Michelle Wie into a fine golfer, even if she is yet to win a tournament

Posted Aug 03, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

Michelle Wie

So Michelle Wie has made the US Solheim Cup team as a wild-card pick!   To those of us who watched her at Waialai Country Club in Hawaii more than five years ago, this is much less of a surprise than her failure to win a major championship in her teens.  Her last chance of making the breakthrough before her 20th birthday on October 11th, was in the Ricoh Womens British Open at Royal Lytham last weekend, when she finished 11th behind the splendid Catriona Matthew.

I can still vividly recall the late afternoon of Friday, January 16th 2004 when the then 14-year-old prodigy, stood in the middle of the 18th green at Waialai, lighting up the gathering darkness with the most amazing smile.  After sinking a five-foot birdie putt for a remarkable second-round 68, she was convinced she had made history, by surviving the halfway cut in the $4.8 million Sony Open which came at 139 - one under par.

On reaching the recorder's cabin, however, her fragile world was suddenly crushed.  An official informed her that on 140, she was a stroke away from one of the most astonishing achievements in golfing history.  But typically, she betrayed no signs of disappointment: there were no tears, only further smiles.  

With rounds of 72, 68, she had completed 36 holes in level par, playing alongside male professionals on a par-70 course measuring 7,080 yards off the back tees.  Irrespective of her failure to make the cut, it was a performance of unparalleled maturity from a player so young.  And she did it by covering the last three holes in two under par.

"I think I played really great today," she said afterwards. "One more shot.... it's killing me.  I just wish I didn't push that shot at number nine. I could have made a birdie."   She was referring to a badly-pushed three-iron from a downhill lie in the middle of the fairway, which was followed by a duffed chip, leading to a scrambled par. 

Was there a moment when she felt, as Annika Sorenstam had admitted, that she didn't belong on a men's tour?  "I never felt I was out of place," she insisted. "I think I belong in both the LPGA and the (US) PGA.  I was confident I could shoot 68 in both rounds."

In June of that year, British and Irish enthusiasts got the chance of seeing her in Curtis Cup action for the victorious US team at Formby.  And her father, B J, revealed that she was anxious to expand her experience of links terrain.  "I looked into the possibility of getting Michelle into the British Open (at Royal Troon) but females aren't permitted," he said at the time.  And when told that the same applied to the European Tour, he replied: "That's a pity. It would be cool if he got a sponsor's invitation to the Irish Open (at Baltray)."         
Her effort in the Sony came in the wake of Sorenstam's failure to survive the halfway cut at the Colonial Tournament which she departed in tears the previous May, having carded rounds of 71 and 74. Then came the unavailing effort of America's Suzy Whaley in the Greater Hartford Open two months later, when a 36-hole aggregate of 153 left her 13 strokes outside the cut.

When Wie and Sorenstam played in the Mercedes Championships Pro-am on the Plantation Course the week prior to the Sony, the Swede said cautiously of the youngster's prospects:  "Experience matters a lot, and she doesn't have experience.  One day, she's going to have a ton of experience to match her game. But in the meantime, we must remember she's only 14.  Let her learn and have fun."  
Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark's celebrated schoolmistress, remarked sagely to her pupils: "One's prime is elusive.  You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur."

In a golfing sense, one suspected back at Waialai that Michelle Wie's prime was destined to occur early.  But it proved to be elusive. Sorenstam was right:  she had a lot to learn.  And both she and her mentors have made quite a few mistakes over the last five years, to the extent that she has yet to win a professional tournament, much less a major.

Which confirms the long-held belief that talent alone is not enough.  It must be guided gently to maturity.  And for Wie, the Solheim Cup at Rich Harvest Farms, Illinois, on August 21st to 23rd, is now very much a part of that process.

- Dermot Gilleece

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