Commentary

Family decisions likely derailed Wie

Originally Published: July 7, 2009
By Eric Adelson | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Eric Adelson's new book, "The Sure Thing: The Making and Unmaking of Golf Phenom Michelle Wie."

No woman had ever qualified to play in the U.S. Open -- the men's version -- or any other men's major golf tournament.

In fact, no woman had ever emerged from local qualifying prior to the 2006 U.S. Open. Michelle Wie tackled that stage in Honolulu only a week after returning from making the cut in a men's tournament, the SK Telecom in South Korea. She had to score low enough on 18 holes to win one of three slots open to a field of 40 men and, of course, one girl.

She finished first.

[+] EnlargeMichelle Wie
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesIn 2006, Michelle Wie had a chance to become the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open. But a rough second 18 in her 36-hole sectional qualifier left her 5 shots out of a playoff that could have led her to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

"Awesome," Wie replied to the USGA official who brought her the news.

The first woman in history to advance to sectional qualifying would play her next round in Summit, N.J., against the likes of Mark O'Meara, Bernard Langer and about 200 other male golfers, including professionals and amateurs. Roughly 20 golfers would then go on to play in the 2006 U.S. Open later that summer at Winged Foot Golf Club, one of the most storied tracks in the world of golf, in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Why New Jersey? Michelle could have stayed in Hawaii and played in the sectional qualifier there, with all the local love and less of the national competition. Instead, the Wies flew first to northern Maryland, site of the LPGA Championship, scheduled to begin only three days after the Open sectionals, so Michelle could practice. They then drove in a rented minivan to New Jersey.

The decision made no sense. Why practice on a women's course, with greens cut at one length, then play on a men's course, with another cut, then return to the first course? Once Wie got one putting speed down, it would be time to switch to another speed, and then back again. But the Wie ambition knew no limits. It was the way the family thought. When facing a choice between (a) and (b), the Wies invariably opted for (c).

Leading up to sectionals, Sports Illustrated ran a first-person column by Rick Hartmann, the jovial head pro from a club on Long Island who was slated to play in Wie's group. The headline: "Why Me? Help! I'm Playing with Michelle Wie in a U.S. Open Qualifier." USA Today's Ian O'Connor reported on Jack Nicklaus' "100 percent" support of Wie's effort if she qualified.

Reports from Europe rang in with defending U.S. Open champ Michael Campbell's comment that "She's got to prove that she can win on the women's tour before she can even have a chance on the men's tour." Gambling sites such as gambling911.com and pinnaclesports.com offered action on whether Wie would make it, putting her odds at slightly better than 7 to 1 against.

"The national media will descend on Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit like locusts," wrote Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press. "The normally subdued event known as U.S. Open sectional qualifying will be turned into nothing short of a circus sideshow thanks to her presence."

Sideshow? No, Wie's presence made the main event. One day after Wie made sectionals, USGA media relations director Craig Smith fielded an e-mail from a reporter asking about credentials for Canoe Brook. "None needed," Smith wrote back, "just show up and join the party."

But at any really good party, the room fills up a little faster than the party throwers expect. Sectionals were normally quiet enough for the few gallery members to hear conversations between players and caddies; now the USGA had a rock concert on its hands.

Wie played in a group with Hartmann and David Gossett, a winner of the U.S. Amateur and the John Deere Classic. Organizers, knowing Wie would create enough stir to clog the entire course, decided to put her group last, at 8:35 a.m. off the easier South Course and then at 2:20 p.m. off the more difficult North Course. The 36-hole odyssey would take 11 hours.

The day would not feel long.

Wie laughed as she arrived at the course just after dawn, stunned and yet touched to see so many media and fans waiting for her. She went through her normal pre-round routine, putting as her mother Bo held her head steady, while dozens of reporters recorded every movement she made.

More than a thousand spectators lined up for the first shot of Wie's day. Crowd control would be a problem. More than 6,000 fans flooded the premises, so many that the course had to close at 11 a.m. Even that didn't keep people out. The qualifier didn't have gallery ropes -- none had ever been needed before -- so reporters and fans walked on the fairway, sometimes within arms-length of the players.

The fixation on Wie was such that spectators walked next to Gossett and Hartmann, oblivious to them or their upcoming shots. The two other pros almost disappeared into the crowd, like just another couple of guys in golf gear out to watch Wie. Gossett, after badly hooking his first shot, walked up the fairway laughing at the scene. Even Wie's two accompanying security guards, both from the Summit (N.J.) Police Detective Bureau (and both carrying handcuffs and guns), got lost in the throng.

Oohs and aahs tracked Michelle's tee shots; nothing new there. A tricky 10-footer to save par on the first; now that was something. Bo yelled her standard "Yessss!" The crowd burst into applause, and the mob moved on. Back in the snack shack-turned-TV studio, ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi prepared for his first cut-in. The drama had just begun.

Wie took off her coral sweater on the next hole; things were heating up. On the third hole, she stared down a dogleg left around a large bunker. Gossett and Hartmann played it safe, using irons to knock it to the turn and no further. Wie launched a 5-wood that seemed to be locked in on the bunker. She walked to the right of the tee box to coax her ball away from the sand, then let out a half-laugh as it bounced safely on the other side.

But Canoe Brook found Wie's weakness too. This was yet another men's course with slick greens and poa annua grass rather than the Bermuda she was reared on in Hawaii. Wie had 10-footer after 10-footer, but a 10-footer on this course had as many twists as a 30-footer at the tournament she was coming off of in South Korea. On No. 4, she knocked a gorgeous 7-iron over a bunker to within 4 feet, but she lipped out her putt and looked skyward in disbelief.

Wie came right back two holes later: 275-yard tee shot, 210-yard 5-wood over a trap and the fringe, good chip to 4 feet, birdie. Easy game, when you play it right.

The crowd swelled. One man had a tiny periscope, which looked ripped from a bathtub-sized submarine, so he could look over the crowd at Wie. On the 11th, two college-age guys stood by the tee box as Wie took a practice cut.

"Pretty swing," said one.

"Pretty ass," offered the other.

The 15th brought another classic Wie moment. She pushed her drive on the long par-4 and landed in a divot. Wie claimed she could see standing water if she stood by the ball. Rules official Jim Litvack came over, looked down, and shook his head. Wie could only have relief if she could see the water at address. She couldn't. Wie glanced at her caddie, and then smiled in frustration.

Wie took out her 5-wood. A 5-wood for a ball in a divot? Was she crazy? She swung and the ball rocketed toward the low-slung clouds and the green. It trickled on, and fans were almost too stunned to cheer. It was the shot of the day -- so far.

USGA rep Beth Murrison, working crowd control, turned away from the gallery to stare and shook her head in amazement. As Wie headed up the fairway, several spectators stayed behind to study the gash she'd left in the ground. They gawked at the divot as if a meteor had landed.

Behind shimmering sunglasses, Litvack smiled. "I felt like s---," he said of the ruling he'd had to make. "Then she hit a great ball. Now I don't feel like s---."

On the par-4 18th, Wie found her second shot on an elevated slope looking down at the green, 50 feet from the flag. Bogey was going to be a good score, considering the sharp incline she had to traverse. She took an ever-so-soft swing, but even so the ball skittered across the green.

"Sit! Sit!" somebody cried. Fat chance. Then a low, uh-oh rumble turned into a low, expectant roar as the ball headed right at the flag. At near full speed, it plowed right into the yellow flagstick and vanished. A roar exploded and reverberated over the course. Birdie!

Wie bent over laughing and then practically skipped down the green to collect her ball. Fans rushed the scorer's tent, even though a no autographs-no interviews policy was in effect. A cart came to rescue her. On the long walk through a tunnel to the clubhouse, PR reps and civilians whipped out their Blackberrys and cells to inform friends as if they had just spotted Bruce Springsteen at the grocery store.

Michelle Wie, with a 2-under 70, was halfway to Winged Foot.

One word reverberated in the media center all through lunch: "She." She was tied for 13th. No, she was tied for 8th. She would be out if the sectional ended right now. No, she would be in. A reporter called up PGATour.com, which had on the home page under a big head: "Wie've Got You Covered!"

If Michelle Wie matched her performance on the first 18 that afternoon, she would tee it up with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh and Ernie Els at the U.S. Open.

She was preposterously close to something preposterous.

The Wie Buzz, as palpable as the humidity, had never been higher, but it drowned the hard truth that she had missed six birdie chances from inside 12 feet. The look of confidence on the greens in South Korea, where she seemed to know exactly where the putt was going before she struck the ball, was gone.

"The whole deal for her was a mental thing," said Kelly Leadbetter, wife of renowned teaching pro David Leadbetter, who started working on Wie's putting stroke after Japan. "She wasn't committing. Be positive, commit, and let it happen."

But that was just it: Wie was all about making things happen. That's how she'd lived -- and played -- her entire life. Could she let anything happen? She came from two parents who planned everything down to the tiniest detail. Now it seemed one of the family's greatest strengths, its striving for perfection, was turning out to be a weakness.

Wie walked out to the South Course in the afternoon and started her second 18 on the par-4, 373-yard 10th. She immediately pulled her tee shot left into a bunker. She could only pitch out and make bogey, falling back to 1-under for the day. The cut looked to be 4-under. Those missed putts were looking larger and larger.

Wie fought on, making par after par after par. On the 17th, a 455-yard par-4 to a blind fairway, she blistered a drive straight out. She and her caddie walked toward the group of white dots in the growing haze and stopped at the first ball. Wie assumed hers was the shortest of the three drives; it wasn't. She slipped away from the first ball casually and walked toward her own. Catching on, the huge crowd laughed and cheered.

Next, as if for emphasis, she whipped out an iron and dropped her shot 10 feet from the cup. Another roar. And when she nailed her birdie putt, a third cheer rattled along the trees. She was back to 2-under with 10 holes left. Nineteen players were at 3-under or better. Maybe a single birdie would do the trick.

The afternoon heat rose, enveloping Wie like a shawl. Her face began to glisten. The marshals began to allow fans to swarm the fairway behind the group. She played on, locked in on the moment. She finished 30 holes at a sizzling 2-under.

Veteran reporters agreed that they had never seen so young a person do so well under such circumstances. A New York Times photographer caught her ponytail at the top of her follow-through; that picture would go on the top of the front page of the next day's paper.

Wie arrived at the 4th tee, her 32nd hole on the day, and showed a barely-perceptible sign of strain: her back, always ramrod straight, bent just slightly at her shoulders. Fatigue had crept in. She missed the fairway with a 3-wood. She hit a nice recovery shot over a ravine to within 25 feet, which she lagged to 3 feet. A row of fans crowned the fairway, gazing over the water hazard as she stepped up to her par putt. The collective gasp told the story: miss.

Wie pulled her cap lip down over her eyes. After a few long seconds, she tapped in for bogey.

Everybody -- her parents, her caddie, the onlookers, even Michelle -- realized in that instant she was done. The crowd around her went so silent you could hear the faint rustle of leaves in the wind. Sure, she had five holes to go and three birdies would do, so technically she could still & No. She was done.

Bogey.

Bogey.

Par.

Par.

Par.

Michelle Wie walked off the course after the last par at plus-1, 5 strokes out of a playoff. Her putter had done her in again.

"I'm very proud of her," her father, B.J., said afterward. "A little disappointed, but very proud. I think Michelle demonstrated that it's possible for a woman to play in a men's major."

Michelle shot back: "I think finally my dad said something right."

And one final thought from the teen-ager: "Hopefully, this just shows or motivates people to do what they want to do. I feel a lot more motivated after today."

Team Wie left New Jersey that night, and arrived at the Bulle Rock Country Club in Havre de Grace, Md., the next day. The rest of the field for the LPGA Championship had already scouted out the course and prepared for the second-biggest weekend of its season. But the biggest event of Wie's season had just happened.

She said she felt like she was "80 years old."

Eric Adelson's book, "The Sure Thing: The Making and Unmaking of Golf Phenom Michelle Wie," is now on sale and can be purchased at michellewiebook.com. He can be reached at ericadelson@gmail.com.

Eric Adelson | email

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