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Wie revels in her independence days

7/12/2006 - Golf

For all of her amazing ability, Michelle Wie does at times operate in an aura of myth. She hits the ball a long way, but it's not that long when compared to the male professionals she will face this week at the John Deere Classic, where she was given a sponsor's exemption for the second straight year.

It is often said that Wie hits the ball as far as the men, which simply is not true. For most of the 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier last month, she was behind her playing partners, one of whom was a club pro. Even on the LPGA Tour, where Wie plays a limited schedule, she is long, but not the longest.

A case in point came Saturday in the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship, where Wie was defeated in the quarterfinals by 20-year-old Brittany Lincicome, who led the tour in driving distance last year and is second this year. Lincicome routinely knocked it by Wie, to the surprise of many.

"I think they got a reality check," Lincicome said. "She doesn't drive it as far as people think she does."

Lincicome defeated Wie 4 and 3, so she has the right to talk. And she made it clear the idea of competing in a men's event is not necessarily what Wie should be doing.

"If you can't beat Annika [Sorenstam], you don't need to go play on another tour," said Lincicome, who captured her first LPGA title at the Match Play. "If you're not No. 1 on this tour, you don't need to go to another tour."

Ouch.

This will always be the argument against Wie's path to professional golf, so long as there is a goose egg in the victory column.

But unlike a few years ago, when playing in men's tournaments seemed so much like a gimmick, it really no longer is. Of course, she is maximizing exposure for the various sponsors who are now paying her millions, but Wie is a legitimate attraction for a tournament such as the John Deere, which last year had more buzz than it could have ever dreamed possible, considering its role as the final event before the British Open.

Given Wie's non-member status on the LPGA, it is the perfect opportunity to step out and test her game against the best. Sure, it would be nice if she were dominating LPGA events and supporting that tour on a full-time basis, but she is not a member. If she applied, the tour would be faced with an interesting dilemma: the minimum age requirement is 18, and Wie is just 16. It took a special waiver to allow Morgan Pressel to play just a few months before her 18th birthday. How could they change the rules for Wie?

Actually, the situation has played to her advantage. It allows her the opportunity to be independent.

As a non-member, she can take just six sponsor exemptions, along with spots she got in the U.S. Women's Open as a special invitee and in the Women's British Open based on her performance last year. Bad for the tour, good for Wie, because it allows her opportunities such as this week.

Long ago, Wie chose this path and shunned her peers as an amateur. Many questioned that move, saying she needed to learn how to win tournaments she was supposed to win, that the pressure would bode well in the future. Perhaps she would have won by now had she chosen another method, but since she didn't, it is difficult to argue with her close calls. Plenty of LPGA veterans would kill for her majors record to this point.

No, she has not won. But Wie's tie for third at the U.S. Women's Open was her third top-5 in a women's major this year and sixth in 11 tries. That is remarkable for a 16-year-old.

Imagine what will happen when she hones the parts of her game that need work, such as putting and chipping, or eliminating the ill-timed errant shot.

Heading into the Women's Open, there was plenty of conjecture about Wie's putting -- and rightly so. It cost her at the U.S. Open qualifier, and again at the LPGA Championship. But at the Women's Open, she needed only 27 putts in the final round, the fourth-best of the day.

She was unable to win that tournament, but it was hardly anything to hang her head over. Wie shot 71-73 in the 36-hole final, finishing just two strokes out of a playoff won by Sorenstam. And she did lead the field in driving distance, even if the figure of 264.9 yards would put her well behind most of the men she'll compete against this week.

Wie is going to play a busy schedule in the summer, when she is out of school, and playing a men's event once in a while certainly is not going to hurt her. If nothing else, it brings enormous attention to a tournament that otherwise would get a fraction.

Meanwhile, Wie will continue to hear criticism until she wins ... which doesn't seem all that far off.



Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.