- Ron Sirak, Golf
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On Tuesday at the Ginn Tribute hosted by Annika Sorenstam, a small group of LPGA players met with a tour official to complain that Michelle Wie spent the previous week playing the RiverTowne CC course. Tour members are banned from the competition venue the seven days prior to the event until after 5 p.m. Sunday. But Wie, a nonmember, is not bound by the rule, and the players were told it was a fact of life they just have to live with.
By Thursday afternoon that conversation was lost in a juicier controversy: Did Wie withdraw from the Ginn because of an injured wrist or because she faced violating an obscure rule that would disqualify her for the rest of the LPGA season? And did LPGA officials, in an effort to protect six additional tournaments, counsel Wie's manager to have her quit so she could play another day?
Wie's first LPGA appearance since October and first anywhere since she missed the cut in the PGA Tour's Sony Open in January was her shortest outing in 47 professional events, lasting a mere 16 holes before she climbed into a cart, joined a caravan that included her father B.J., mother Bo and manager Greg Nared and headed back to the clubhouse. When the 17-year-old prodigy who enters Stanford in September emerged after a 30-minute meeting with her inner circle, she said she quit because "I had issues with my wrist" and not because she was in danger of ending her LPGA season by failing to break 88.
"Shooting 88 is not what I think about," she said.
It was an answer many players found unsatisfying.
A nonmember who fails to break 88 is banned for the rest of the season. Wie was 14-over after 16 holes when she quit. Two pars would have given her an 86. But the way Wie was driving the ball -- she nailed a car 60 yards right of the fairway on the par-5 third hole on her way to making a 10 -- two pars were hardly a given.
The withdrawal also eliminated inquiry into the third significant rules controversy since Wie turned pro in October 2005. On No. 14 -- her fifth hole -- Wie was trying to decide where to take an unplayable-lie drop when her father said, "Go back to the tee." She did. Her playing partners -- Janice Moodie and Alena Sharp -- questioned the action, but a rules official said because Wie did not solicit the information she did not violate the prohibition against receiving advice from a person other than her caddie. The controversy would have no doubt escalated had Wie not dropped out.
While most players interviewed by Golf World doubted Wie withdrew because of an injury, they did so anonymously. Most were also uncomfortable with the presence of an LPGA official on the course immediately prior to the withdrawal. Chris Higgs, senior vice president and chief operations officer, had a brief discussion with Nared shortly before the manager approached Wie. After another brief talk, Wie told a rules official, "We're not going to play anymore."
A tour official confirmed Nared and Higgs discussed the 88-stroke rule but said Nared initiated the conversation and Higgs was merely answering questions. If Wie had been disqualified, it would have cost her six more LPGA starts this year. She has accepted sponsor's exemptions to this week's McDonald's LPGA Championship, the Evian Masters, Ricoh Women's British Open, CN Canadian Women's Open and Samsung World Championship. Her final exemption would likely be used at the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., since it is near the headquarters of Nike, one of the sponsors who enabled her to earn nearly $20 million in endorsements last year. Her spot in the U.S. Women's Open, earned with a T-3 finish last year at Newport CC, would not have been affected.
While most players and knowledgeable observers found it odd an LPGA official would get in a cart, ride onto the course and talk with a player's manager, deputy commissioner Libba Galloway disputed that view.
"[Higgs] is head of tournament business affairs, and he's often on the course with tournament sponsors and he was out there [with] a tournament sponsor watching a sponsor exemption play, which is really not that unusual," said Galloway.
Asked about the conversation with Nared, Galloway said, "[Higgs] knows Greg, and Greg asked him for some confirmation on some information he had gotten from the LPGA."
Asked if Nared was aware of the 88-stroke rule before speaking with Higgs, Galloway said, "Yes, that's my understanding."
Nared, reached by phone Saturday, told Golf World his conversation with Higgs was purely social.
"I saw [him] on No. 7, and we spoke for about 30 seconds," said Nared, who works for the William Morris Agency. "There is nothing I can do about that. You know me, I am a cordial person."
Asked what they talked about, he said, "It was a private discussion," a characterization Higgs also used Thursday before making himself unavailable for the rest of the weekend.
Nared said Wie "tweaked [the wrist]." While Wie never indicated she was in distress, Nared said, "I know my player, and I know when she is not swinging well. I felt as her manager I should check with her." They spoke as she walked from the seventh green to the eighth tee appearing as if she were going to continue play. Nared said it was Wie's decision to quit.
Mackinzie Kline, the 15-year-old amateur who played in a cart because of a congenital heart condition, shot 86-89 and was disqualified from further LPGA events this year because of the 88-stroke rule.
"Sponsor exemptions are good for the game, but we are the best women's golf tour in the world and we do have to maintain a certain level of play," Galloway said about the 88-stroke rule. "This is a safeguard to maintain that."
Clearly, no one ever expected the rule would impact a player of Wie's ability.
A common sentiment among players is that the LPGA is over a barrel with Wie, wanting the attention she brings and willing to make compromises to gain her participation and hopefully her membership.
"I think obviously the LPGA is protecting the LPGA," Sherri Steinhauer, a 22-year veteran, said when asked about the discussion between Higgs and Nared. "She's a draw for the LPGA, and that's where that comes in."
While Wie would be a boost for the LPGA if she returned to her former level of play, the tour probably needs her less now than two years ago. The emergence of young stars such as Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lincicome provides compelling gate attractions. All three are 21 or younger, and Lorena Ochoa, the new No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, is only 25. The return of Sorenstam, who came back from a neck injury at the Ginn Tribute, could create an intriguing duel between her and Ochoa for No. 1.
Creamer, whose autograph was one of the most sought after last week, was one of those ill at ease about the Wie withdrawal.
"I don't think the LPGA should ever get involved in something like that," Creamer said. "I think it's sad we have to do that. The LPGA shouldn't get involved with players on the golf course unless it is a ruling or something like that."
Wie, who complained of a sore right wrist after shooting 78-76 at the Sony Open, said she injured her left wrist falling while jogging in February. She skipped the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of the year, in late March. The next major is the McDonald's this week at Bulle Rock in Maryland. Many players felt if Wie plays the McDonald's it would mean either she was not injured when she walked off the course at the Ginn or that she was unwisely playing hurt. The public seems to have made up its mind. In an online poll, USA Today asked if Wie dropped out to avoid the 88-stroke rule and 87 percent of more than 5,500 respondents said yes.
Controversy has followed Wie almost from the moment she turned pro in October 2005. She was disqualified in her pro debut at the Samsung World Championship when she took an illegal drop and subsequently signed an incorrect scorecard. At the 2006 Weetabix Women's British Open, Wie was penalized for moving a loose impediment in a bunker.
In 18 events on five tours since turning pro, Wie has withdrawn twice, been disqualified once and missed six cuts. Her previous shortest outing was at the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic Tour last year when she quit after 27 holes while well above the cut number and was hospitalized with heat exhaustion. She has accepted a sponsor's invitation into this year's John Deere in July.
Wie has struggled since the final round of last year's Evian Masters, where she finished tied for second, making it her sixth consecutive LPGA top-five finish. With seven holes to play at Evian, she had a two-stroke lead over Karrie Webb and appeared poised for her first victory. But Webb closed with three birdies to win by one stroke. Since then Wie has failed to break par in nine consecutive LPGA rounds and has averaged 78.7 in eight men's rounds.
What was expected to be an exciting return from the wrist injury at the Ginn Tribute instead was painful to watch as Wie struggled to control the golf ball.
"A couple of snaps and the rest were blocks," was Moodie's assessment.
"It looked like she couldn't release," said Sharp. "Maybe she came out too soon."
Several coaches said she had lost her once silky-smooth tempo and theorized it was because she was overswinging trying to hit it as far as the men.
David Leadbetter, Wie's coach, who spent the week in Ohio at the Memorial, told Golf World, "She's been dying to play, but I told her to keep her expectations low since it was just her second tournament [of the year]. She probably had some bad memories going on. And no form to go on. It's very uncertain what's going to happen from here but if there was any doubt in your mind whether you can hit the shots without flinching, then this probably wasn't a good idea. But that's easy to say after the fact."
After taking Friday off, Wie was back practicing Saturday. Monday she played in a pro-am in the Bulle Rock area. In a text message to Golf World, Nared said, "[She] seems to be OK. Think she will announce today she is playing."
The decision to play seemed to guarantee an increase in the tension between LPGA members and Wie -- and create another week in which the attention at a tournament is on the tour's most prominent nonmember.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.
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