- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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Every Michelle Wie event comes with a debate. That's part of how the 19-year-old Stanford student stays compelling without winning a single professional tournament. It's tough to find a good dispute about Paula Creamer or Lorena Ochoa. But it's so easy to get into a row about Wie.
So here's the latest topic for banter: Is Q-School this week the end of the beginning for Wie? Or the beginning of the end?
One side of the argument is that Wie is finally doing it the right way. Her forays against the men, though highly lucrative, were folly. She was never going to win a tournament, or finish in the top 10 consistently. But if you look at Wie's performance in LPGA events, there's no reason to think she can't dominate that tour by age 20, as her father once said she intended.
Think back to 2006. Wie came within a Karrie Webb eagle of winning the Kraft Nabisco, came within a few short putts of winning the LPGA Championship, came within a brutal bunker shot of winning the U.S. Open, and came within a decent par-3 tee shot of winning the Evian Masters. If she wasn't overburdened with men's events that summer, she might have stayed healthy and continued to learn how to seal the deal.
She was only 16 then and already feeling the pang of wrist trouble and the pressure of all those millions Nike and Sony bet on her. So imagine what she can do if she gets her card and focuses on the women's game. All she has to do this weekend in Daytona is finish in the top 20 to gain full status, and anyone would agree she's more talented than just about anyone competing this week. Actually, she's more talented than just about anyone in all of women's golf.
Speaking of which ... the LPGA needs Wie badly. Yes, Ochoa and Creamer and Morgan Pressel are outstanding, but nobody on Tour moves the needle like Wie. That's especially important with Annika Sorenstam now retired and tournaments starting to dwindle away.
Why did the State Farm Classic allow Wie to play a full round after she failed to sign her scorecard in July? Why not disqualify her immediately? It's not a stretch to think tournament officials wanted another day of Wie threatening to finally win. But we don't need conspiracy theories to show Wie's worth to the LPGA Tour. TV ratings show Wie is incredibly relevant even when she's irrelevant. People watch her, and read about her, and if you're at this point in this article, you do too.
Don't forget what made Wie watchable in the first place. She had one of the most perfect swings in all of golf and there are signs it could be coming back. The long, looping, lovely stroke that catapulted her to greatness vanished two years ago, either because of injury or tinkering or both, and she started swinging like she was in an elevator shaft. Now coach David Leadbetter has reintroduced a little more freedom into Wie's turn, and that could make a ton of difference.
The best evidence came in July, when Wie torched the Panther Creek course at the State Farm Classic and would have entered the final round within one of the lead if not for the disqualification. It feels like Wie has been around for decades, but if she was just appearing now, at age 19 (like pretty much every other Q-schooler), she would be touted as one of the Tour's future superstars.
On the flip side, if Wie's career was a stock chart, it would look, well, like pretty much every other stock on the market. She had a Google-like rise and then buyers wanted some evidence of long-term growth. It never came.
Since contending for a few tournaments in 2006, it's been a sad spiral, full of pain (both wrists), bad public relations (pulling out of the Ginn Tribute because of injury and then practicing for the LPGA Championship two days later) and baffling decision-making (playing in the 84 Lumber despite its extra length). There's still no hard proof that her wrists are fully healed, and now there is rumor of shoulder trouble as well. If she doesn't get her card this week, she really has nowhere to go. Wie could come all the way back, but so could the American car industry.
Wie also has not convinced anyone of her ability to excel in pressure situations. She has won only a single tournament, and she might not have won that one (the U.S. Women's Publinx in 2003) if Virada Nirapathpongporn had made an easy putt on the second-to-last hole. Many chances for victory have eluded her since because of mediocre putting, so there's no guarantee she will ever be a top women's golfer if she can't play the last six holes of a tournament the way she has often played the first 66.
And even if she does get her card and win in 2009, the fact that she's in Q-School this week proves the Wie experiment failed. If she could still get exemptions to all the tournaments she wanted to enter, she wouldn't bother with going after a tour card. Now she has no choice.
Wie is just another good, young golfer, rather than the future of the sport. Most sponsors and fans and media have had enough of her playing against men, so her chances of making big headlines with her play have narrowed. And in this economy, when General Motors can't even afford to bet on Tiger Woods, it's hard to imagine any major corporation investing in Wie's ability to change the game.
Wie wanted for so long to break boundaries, but now she has to spend the first week of December trying desperately to earn the right to stay within them.
Eric Adelson's book on Michelle Wie is available for pre-order and will be released in 2009. He can be reached at email@example.com.
When Michelle Wie tees off at LPGA Tour Q-school this week, one thing is certain. Both parties need each other to help their brands and their futures, writes ESPN.com's Eric Adelson.