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Let's not give up on Wie just yet

7/5/2007 - Golf

There's a reader who e-mails me every time Michelle Wie shoots 80-something, withdraws from a tournament, angers Dottie Pepper and her dog, or doesn't make the cut. He's not a complete nut job, but if I had to choose between his brain mass or the size of a Pro-V1, I'm taking the Titleist. This guy revels in Wie's failures and mocks anyone (hello) who thinks Wie has the talent to do a Tiger Woods on the LPGA Tour and one day qualify for a PGA Tour event.


I'm on the Wie golf cart. I've been there since the first time I saw her hit a tee shot during a pro-am at the Mercedes Championship at Kapalua's Plantation Course. She was 13, I think. You could hear the ball beg for an ice pack as it left the clubhead.

I'm on Wie's side of the ropes because I've seen her in social settings, surrounded by corporate types, media types, big-money types -- and she didn't WD there. Instead, she handled herself with grace, humor and a certain carefree, teenage goofiness.

And I'm a Wie believer because I was at the John Deere Classic the day when a 15-year-old Honolulu schoolgirl came within two shots of playing on the weekend of a PGA Tour event. About a year later, I was at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., when Wie remained in contention for a U.S. Open spot until the 32nd hole of the 36-hole sectional qualifier.

From the '05 Women's British Open to the '06 Kraft Nabisco Championship to the '06 McDonald's LPGA Championship to the '06 U.S. Women's Open -- all majors -- Wie had four top-five finishes. Anti-Wie e-mail volume was way down. Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie once said, "I played with Tiger when he was 16, and Tiger wasn't this good."

These days, Tiger's newborn daughter, Sam Alexis, has exactly the same number of top-75 finishes as Wie this year: zero. Wie withdrew from the Ginn Tribute under suspicious injury circumstances (and ticked off host Annika Sorenstam, as well as Pepper of NBC and The Golf Channel), finished last the next week at the LPGA Championship, and WD'd Saturday at the U.S. Women's Open, again blaming an injured left wrist.

Pepper, a former LPGA star and two-time major winner, has called Wie, "overexposed, miserable and manipulated," adding that her recent behavior reeked of, "a self-centered, unapologetic brat." Then Pepper took a sand wedge to Wie's parents, B.J. and Bo, accusing them of "greed and shortsightedness."

Someone needs to remind Pepper that Wie is 17, not Condoleezza Rice. And before Pepper and everyone else piles on the Wies, it's wise to remember that there are plenty of accomplices when it comes to the rise and temporary fall of Michelle Wie.


The Wies have made mistakes, lots of them, but I don't recall the TV networks, including the ones Pepper works for, refusing to air Michelle's play when she was drawing viewers to their broadcasts. I haven't seen Nike, Sony or the William Morris Agency ask that she take a year off and, you know, just be a kid.

Wie is a mess. You can see it in her scores and on her face. You can see it all the way from the Olamana Golf Links on Oahu, where Casey Nakama is still a teaching pro. Nakama was Wie's instructor for nearly three years. Wie was almost 10 the first time Nakama saw that swing.

"There are a lot of things surrounding her right now," said Nakama, while taking a phone break during a Sunday junior golf session. "There's a lot of turmoil. I don't see how she would be able to function at this point."

She can't function, Nakama said, because of her state of mind (confused), her wrist (hurt), and her swing (flawed). In his opinion, Wie's swing has become too robotic, a result of changes made by noted golf instructor David Leadbetter. Leadbetter, he said, altered Wie's swing to deliver more distance to compete on the men's tour, but at the expense of accuracy.

"Her swing is just not very good right now," Nakama said. "It's hard because once I saw what type of mechanical move they were working on, I knew what the intent was. I don't think they were headed in the right direction."

This isn't sour grapes. Nakama said he adores Wie and completely understood why she decided to switch to Leadbetter and his state-of-the-art training facility in Florida. But he said he also remembers the pre-Leadbetter Wie who missed the 2004 Sony Open by a mere stroke, and did it with her original swing.

"Everything would have been fine," said Nakama of Wie's quest to play in PGA Tour events. "There's absolutely no doubt she had enough length to be good enough out there, to compete out there."

Patti McGowan, a Golf Magazine Top 100 teaching pro, called late Sunday afternoon from Lake Nona Golf & Country Club (Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are members there) in Orlando, Fla. McGowan, who was a member of Leadbetter's staff (but never instructed Wie) disputed Nakama's claim about Wie's swing being too mechanical.

"I think her swing still looks very good," she said.

But McGowan, like Nakama, said it's obvious Wie's confidence is shot and her wrist isn't 100 percent. Maybe, she said, Wie is a victim of expectations, of too ambitious of a career path, of the pressures that come with trying to please your parents and your endorsement partners.

And despite all that, "I'd still buy as much [Wie] stock as I could," McGowan said. "I don't know who calls the shots in her career -- and I'm not saying I totally agree with the strategy she's taking -- but I still think in the end she's going to be fine."

She's going to be fine because what happened in that stretch of majors from 2005 through 2006 wasn't an accident. She's that good. And right now, she's that screwed up.

"But there's not a mean bone in her body," Nakama said. "She's a great kid."

The great kid has to become tougher and more professional. She has to follow her heart and let her wrist and broken confidence heal. That's going to take time.

"I think it will be about a year or so before we start to see a turnaround," Nakama said. "We'll see that bright star come back at some point."

A year, eh? I can live with that. Wie is worth the wait.

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