Commentary

Given record in biggest events, Wie's first win could have major implications

Originally Published: December 8, 2008
By Eric Adelson | Special to ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- After seven years as a part-time performer, Michelle Wie is now a card-carrying member of the LPGA Tour. But what did the rest of us learn about her during Q-school?

1. Reports of Wie's demise are greatly exaggerated.

2. Wie has the talent and game to win now.

3. She still hasn't proved she can perform in the clutch.

When the week began, there was a very real possibility that the entire Wie experiment would fizzle. Of course, she is only 19 and could have reapplied to Q-school next year, but failure to finish in the top 20 among non-Tour members on an easy course would have challenged even the strongest belief that she will be a golf superstar of the future.

"If she failed this test," said her coach, David Leadbetter, "it would be, 'Michelle Who?'"

It's still very much Michelle Wie. That became clear as she took her cuts early in the week, pounding drives with a close facsimile of the swing that made her famous. Her drives reached the 280-yard mark frequently, and she rarely landed in trouble. Her iron play was very strong, and her chipping was better than ever. She made four of five sand saves over the course of five rounds. Leadbetter said his student is "98 percent" back.

'A Clean Slate'

After several years of feeling like an outsider, Michelle Wie earned the right to play the LPGA Tour in 2009 after finishing T-7 at Q-school. But forgiving and forgetting all the drama of the past few years are two very different things. Eric Adelson
And the crowds came out, not in the hundreds until Sunday, but definitely in numbers that perhaps no Q-school competitor (man or woman) has ever wooed. She had a draw on her shots that sometimes lapsed into a pull, but she looked like her wrists had more or less healed. That's saying something, because according to Leadbetter, her entire left side was so weak that it was "hard to hold onto the club."

No matter what you think of Wie, it's hard not to respect the courage it took to fight back from the brink of oblivion.

Assuming her wrists stay healed -- and that is not a safe assumption -- Wie can and likely will win a tournament in the next year.

Remember, in 2006 she placed in the top five in three of the first four LPGA majors she played as a pro. She held at least a share of the lead during the final nine holes of three of those four majors. So she's been in contention on several occasions already. (People who say she hasn't done anything yet are mistaken in thinking any female teen golfer can shoot 68 on a PGA Tour course at age 14 and come within a few strokes of qualifying for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot at 16.) Wie is more mature and more conservative now, so she's less prone to the kind of aggression that burned her years ago.

[+] EnlargeMichelle Wie
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireThough she had a rough final round at Q-school, Michelle Wie has been in contention before, even at LPGA majors. Now she just has to learn to seal the deal.
The best shot Wie has to break through will come in the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in March. Her family owns a home there, so she can practice to her heart's delight. She has played well in the Palm Desert area nearly all of her career, and missed a playoff in 2006 only because of a Karrie Webb eagle on the 72nd hole.

Now the bad news: Wie is still about as reliable on Sundays as a Detroit Lions quarterback. Even in the final round of Q-school, with virtually no chance of missing the cut, Wie started off bogey-bogey-bogey. She stopped hitting fairways, stopped hitting greens and stopped hitting putts. And her missed putts weren't lip-outs. She missed the hole completely, twice, from 6 feet or less.

Once she fell out of shouting range of Stacy Lewis, Wie settled down -- almost as if she felt more comfortable there. She later said she wasn't nervous, and though the winds and cold did abate after those first three holes, Lewis only got stronger as the finish line got closer.

Wie, however, shot a 2-over-par 74 on Sunday on the same course where she shot 65 on Thursday and 68 on Saturday. The drive-for-show, putt-for-dough mantra is completely true on the LPGA Tour, and Wie has never been an excellent putter. The tournament champions rarely are superb hitters or mediocre putters.

If winning at a young age was easy, Paula Creamer (eight wins on Tour), Morgan Pressel (two wins on Tour), Natalie Gulbis (one win on Tour) and Ai Miyazato (zero wins on Tour) would all be doing it more often. Don't expect Wie to crush all comers this season, and don't expect her to crush Lewis, who has a steadier game (but not Wie's power or repertoire of shots).

LPGA Tour Q-school

1. Lewis (-18)
2. Yang (-15)
3. Grzebien (-14)
T-4. Bader (-13)
T-4. Giquel (-13)
T-4. Oyama (-13)
T-7. Wie (-12)
T-7. Strom (-12)
• Final scores

"Ten years ago, even par would be top 20 every week," says LPGA Tour veteran Michelle Ellis. "Now you're lucky to make a cut. A lot of players can dominate. They will keep [Wie] honest."

Yet Wie is simply too good to be an also-ran on the LPGA Tour. She will be near the top of the leaderboard early and often. Bet on her winning at least one tournament in '09, and maybe several. But because of her putting and the fact she's still devoting a good deal of her energy to Stanford, we'll predict she finish right behind Lewis in Rookie of the Year voting.

Perhaps that's not the sudden impact Wie or her fans imagine. But she is 19. And the winningest women's golfer of her generation, Annika Sorenstam, joined the Tour in 1994, when she was 23.

Eric Adelson's book on Michelle Wie will be released in 2009, but is available for preorder. He can be reached at ericadelson@gmail.com.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.