- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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Michelle Wie will once again compete in a PGA Tour event this week, accepting a sponsor's exemption into the Reno-Tahoe Open.
Through the powers of mind-reading -- or because I know you so well -- I can tell exactly what you're thinking right now ... and you're dead wrong.
Don't believe me? Fine. I'll prove it. After reading the first paragraph of this column, the immediate thought that entered your head was ...
"I'm so sick and tired of hearing about some 18-year-old girl who has never won anything! Who cares?"
Well, you care -- that's who. When Wie was disqualified for failing to sign her scorecard after Round 2 of the LPGA's State Farm Classic two weeks ago, the news story drew more than 800 user comments on ESPN.com. Just a hunch, but I don't think that number would have reached double-digits had the offender in question been tournament leader Yani Tseng or fellow contenders Katie Futcher, Hee-Won Han or Ji Young Oh.
Like it or not, Wie remains one of the few golfers who can still cause a ripple in the already overflowing wave pool that is professional sports. How come? That's easy. It's because we've seen her grow up -- and disappoint -- right before our eyes. Yes, there are other teenaged female golfers who have accomplished more than Wie in their short careers -- Tseng, Morgan Pressel and In Bee Park have already won major championships on the women's circuit -- but none of them were competing in men's professional events at the age of 14 and none had "phenom" attached to their names like a standard prefix.
Everything Wie has done in her short career -- both positive and negative -- from the second-round 68 that left her a stroke shy of missing the cut at her first Sony Open in 2004 to the questionable withdrawals and disqualifications that have dotted her more recent results, has come under the watchful eye of a skeptical public. So, why should we stop watching now? Did you quit setting the TiVo for "Lost" when it looked like the survivors wouldn't be rescued in a happily-ever-after ending right away? Of course not -- and so you shouldn't turn off The Michelle Wie Show before its exciting conclusion, either.
Ah, I see another thought has crossed your mind ...
Why is she playing on the PGA Tour this week? Shouldn't she be playing somewhere else?
Well, yes ... and no. The LPGA is in England for the Women's British Open, a tournament for which Wie (who isn't a member of said tour) did not try to qualify. Should she be criticized for failing to give it a shot? Absolutely. While most young, U.S.-based non-LPGA members choose to forgo qualifying in Europe at the risk of burning up the savings account, here's guessing that Nike's $20-million girl could have pinched pennies and gone over there.
"I really don't know why Michelle continues to do this," said Annika Sorenstam, who is competing in her final major before retirement. "We have a major this week and, if you can't qualify for a major, I don't see any reason why you should play with the men."
Well, here's one reason: Why not? Wie has shown a reluctance to pursue further LPGA playing privileges through the Duramed Futures Tour (the minor league circuit of the LPGA), and classes at Stanford University don't start up for more than a month. If she were not competing in the Open anyway, the only likely alternative is to head home and beat balls at the practice range. Competing on the PGA Tour may not make her a better player, but it won't result in her becoming a worse one, either -- confidence level, be damned.
"I want to do it as much as I can. I like playing out here," Wie said about competing on the men's tour. "All I'm thinking about is trying to play some good golf. How can I limit the number of bogeys I make? How can I maximize the number of birdies I can make out on this golf course? That's all I can focus on. I can't focus on the rest of the field. I can't focus on what everyone is going to write about this week. I'm going to focus and how I'm going to play, and good rounds and low scores can solve everything."
And yes, I still know what you're thinking ...
Is she even capable of shooting low scores? She's never even made a cut!"
I'm not sure when, why or how making the cut became the ultimate determination of a player's success level. Really, if Wie had holed one more putt back at the '04 Sony and reached the weekend, would that mean she had accomplished any more success in her career? To her credit, Wie has never established that earning a paycheck would equate to any self-fulfilling achievement, other than playing well.
"I'm not going to try to focus on making the cut, because if you try to focus too much on that, you start focusing on other players and try to focus on how can I be in the middle of the field," said Wie, who has never made the cut in seven previous PGA Tour appearances. "My goal is going to be how I'm going to make more birdies and less bogeys. I think that's all my focus this week will be, and if I can do that, then making the cut is going to work out on its own."
Before dismissing Wie's focus as simple conjecture, know that another former phenom once also missed the cut in his first seven appearances on tour, all as a teenager. His name? Tiger Woods.
Wie's career PGA Tour scoring average is 74.3 -- including a pair of 68s in 13 total rounds. Though it sounds solid, that number would leave her almost a full stroke shy of this year's 205th and final player in that category, Travis Perkins. Like they say on the ads, these guys are good.
But I see your mind is wandering elsewhere already ...
"Why is she still being handed exemptions? She's never had to earn her way into an event!"
Well, that thought process directly ties into Wie's popularity. Good, bad or indifferent, people still want to crane their necks at the sideshow that is this 18-year-old girl, whether rooting for her to finally succeed or simply seeking an outlet for some innate feeling of schadenfreude. Either way, the folks who run the Reno-Tahoe event -- just like those from the Sony Open, the John Deere Classic, the now-defunct 84 Lumber Classic and others that offered her a spot in their field -- must know the old saying about how any publicity is good publicity.
And guess what? They're right. During a week that features a World Golf Championship event with most of the world's best players in the field and major championships on both the women's and senior tours, at least one golf writer (hint: you're reading his work right now) is banging away at the keyboard, discussing an opposite-field tournament of which most golf fans couldn't name last year's champion. (It was Steve Flesch. And yes, I had to look it up.)
This isn't rocket science, folks. Though PGA Tour events are considered nonprofit business organizations, increasing ratings and putting fannies in the grandstands have always been a priority. Wie will help both aspects for this tournament.
All of which has you thinking ...
But she's taking a spot in the field from someone who really deserves it!"
Here is the dirty little secret about sponsor's invitations: This is exactly what they're for -- to give a chance to someone who isn't already qualified. Every week, these spots are given to old favorites, local pros, feel-good stories or, yes, young players. There was no public outcry when fellow teens Tadd Fujikawa and Philip Francis, for example, received exemptions into this year's Sony and John Deere tourneys, respectively.
Besides, if a player has any PGA Tour status whatsoever and a working pulse, he can get into the field in Reno. The notion that Wie is potentially stealing food off the table of some struggling young professional is so far off-line that you should be re-teeing your next opinion. Think about it: How do athletes in other sports reach the big leagues? An NFL or NBA player doesn't necessarily "qualify" for his given team; he's given a spot by team officials. Same goes in this situation. Wie -- like all other invited players -- isn't being granted full PGA Tour playing privileges, only a chance to succeed for one week.
Even so, Wie is aware of the criticisms being lobbed her way.
"I can't control -- and I don't want to control -- what other people think about me," she said. "I don't want to. I don't want to be, 'Oh, I wish I had no critics. I wish everyone wouldn't write stuff about me all the time.' It's unrealistic.
"You know, people are going to write hateful stuff about me, and that's fine with me. All I can control is how I play. And if I shoot some low scores and win some tournaments, you know, it's going to be hard to write bad stuff about me. That's all I can control, is how I play, and that's all I'm going to focus on."
Honestly, I'm not sure what you're thinking right now. Perhaps you've softened your stance on Wie, realizing that any objections to her current career path have been misguided toward the teen herself. Or maybe learning more about the special exemptions that have been handed to her only increases your vitriolic contempt for the player.
Either way, one final thought remains: When Michelle Wie competes in a PGA Tour event, it's still big news.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.