Everything but Wie's score was Open-worthy

6/8/2006 - Golf Michelle Wie

SUMMIT, N.J. -- The next chowderhead who says Michelle Wie doesn't "belong" within a par 5 of men's golf gets to catch one of her drives with his teeth. And while waiting for oral surgery, he also should be required to watch all 36 holes of Wie's U.S. Open sectional qualifying, where she came tantalizingly close to making golf history Monday.

Check that. Wie already is the human History Channel, poking innocently and happily at golf's ice agers. She arrived at Canoe Brook Country Club early Monday morning as the first woman to ever reach an Open sectional. She left about a dozen hours later tied for 59th out of an otherwise men-only field of 153, 135 of whom were pros.

No, she didn't secure one of those precious 18 at-large invitations for next week's Open at Winged Foot. To even reach a playoff for the chance at that 18th spot, you had to finish 4-under after two rounds of play. Wie left the scorer's tent at 1-over, which no doubt will please her critics. You've heard their arguments. Perhaps you even agree with them.

"I've got shag balls older than Wie." ... "Win something, anything, on the LPGA first." ... "She'll make a men's cut about the same time Tiger wears a sequined mock turtleneck."

The critics have rye grass for brains. First of all, it's the U.S. Open, not the U.S. Men's Open, or the U.S. Open For People Without Breasts. If you have a handicap index of 1.4 or lower, pay your $150 registration fee, and qualify, you're in.

And nowhere on the online application is there an age minimum. Wie is 16, a few months shy of starting her senior year of high school. She talks, like, ohmigawd, so totally awesome, you know. But her golf game is anything but teenage.

Of course, don't mention that to weenies who think Wie somehow will be scarred by her occasional Nestea plunges into the men's game, or by the travel, or by the pressure. Let her be a kid, they say.

She is. You should have seen her giggling when her father B.J. steered the red Ford Explorer into the Canoe Brook parking lot at 7:26 a.m., only to be greeted by three TV camera crews, autograph seekers and a packed audience at the driving range (and yes, she had to pay $5 for a bucket of balls, just like everyone else). She had 30 people, tops, follow her during the local qualifier in Hawaii. During Monday's round she had, depending on the hole, about 100 times that in gallery size.

Wie's golf bag has three or four small stuffed dolls dangling from a loop. Does that sound like someone afraid of being a kid? After a nice shot -- and there were plenty of them -- Wie usually would offer up nothing more than a shy wave of the hand. She has manners. Even when she did something extraordinary, such as end her first round with a chip-in birdie from the greenside gunk, Wie could only shake her head and tell playing partner Rick Hartmann, "It was so ridiculous."

Age and gender had nothing to do with what happened here Monday. This was about the simple beauty of physics, about the act of hitting a golf ball. It also was about stress management, patience and maturity. Wie too young? She didn't act young, at least, not with a golf club in her hands.

"You guys are going to be writing about her for a long time," Hartmann said.

And it was Hartmann who asked the essential question: "How could you not [root for Wie]? How could that not be great for golf? Is it good for golf? That should be the bottom line."

You want bottom lines? Chris Evert was 16 when she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Nobody demanded she return her Wilson rackets to the proper authorities. A tennis ball doesn't check IDs.

Yes, I know: Evert was still an amateur and confined her matches to the women's game. But genius is genius. Watching Evert then, and watching Wie now, is like watching Mozart play Chopsticks for the first time. It sounds so good, and you know it's only going to get better.

This is the third time Wie came close to squeezing into a U.S.-based men's tournament. She has flirted with the cuts at the Sony and the John Deere, and through 31 holes of Monday's sectional she was romancing the cut line for entry into the Open. Then came two consecutive three-putt bogeys, followed by a pulled drive into the rough that would eventually cost her another stroke. Wie went from 2-under to 1-over -- and out of contention -- with three holes to play.

Still, only Wie could turn a routine sectional qualifier into must-see golf. Her gallery was a bizarre combination of country-club types wearing seersucker, and muni-types wearing whatever they found in a darkened closet. There were tournament first timers, little girls wearing Wie buttons, old men who simply had to see golf's Halley's comet for themselves. I saw a guy in a sport coat, slacks and expensive loafers peel back to the spot in the fairway where Wie had just stuck a wedge shot 8 feet from the pin. The guy looked around, then plucked the divot under his pairings sheet.

"Did you just steal a divot?" I said.

"I'm gonna sell it on e-Bay," he said, his tony silver watch glistening in the morning sun.

Wie handled the kooks, the cameras, the crowds, the two security details, the 290 media members, and Canoe Creek's North and South courses with equal aplomb. She missed six, maybe seven makable birdie putts during the day, and yakked on those two shorties.

"I guess my ball was afraid of heights, because it didn't want to go in the hole," Wie said.

Fear isn't part of Wie's dialect. She said she felt zero pressure Monday. And when a reporter told her that B.J. said her two rounds proved a woman could qualify for an Open, Wie didn't hesitate. "I think finally my dad said something right," she said.

Wie now moves on to the McDonald's LPGA Championship. But she'll fill out another U.S. Open application in 2007.

"I'm not going to quit after this," she said. "Hopefully next year will be the year."

Wie has it all wrong. It already is the year. Open or no Open, Wie belongs.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.