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Favorite or underdog, Wie's goal the same: Just win

7/21/2003

FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- Guess which entrant in this week's U.S. Girls' Junior Championship got a VIP tour last week of the TaylorMade headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif.? Guess which junior golfer had a huge welcome banner waiting for her, got dressed up in an electrode-covered suit -- "I felt like an alien!" she says -- and got her seamless swing tested by beaming TaylorMade execs? Guess which 13-year-old had HBO cameras waiting for her here at Brooklawn Country Club so they could interview her caddie on the day of her nine-hole practice round?

The answer, of course, is Michelle Wie, who is probably the most ballyhooed teenage girl to set foot in Connecticut since George Bush's daughter Barbara first visited Yale.

Even though Wie's competition this week is as much as five years older than her, and despite the fact that she is just one of seven in the field who also played in the U.S. Women's Open two weeks ago, Wie is so widely expected to win this tournament that a second-place finish might ignite murmurs of a slump.

Such is the topsy-turvy life of the world's most famous 13-year-old athlete, who in one month has gone from youngest-ever to win an amateur USGA championship at the U.S. Women's Publinx, to youngest-ever to make the cut at the Women's U.S. Open, to just another teen with a tee time and hopes of making the cut of 64 and advancing to match play Wednesday.

There have been big names to win the U.S. Girls' Junior -- Nancy Lopez, JoAnne Carner, Amy Alcott, and Kelli Kuehne, to name a few past champs. But those big names were just names back then. Tiger Woods won on the boys' side three straight times ending in 1993. But that was when Tiger was a ripe old 17. That was before beating Woods was special.

So how does Wie handle the transition from hunter to hunted? By hardly noticing the difference. Sure, she admits she loved her week away from golf last week in California, where she and her parents got away from the post-Open limelight by visiting with relatives. Wie went shopping and rented DVDs and chatted with her cousins until all hours of the night and did not play a hole all week. "I miss L.A.," she said with what would by now be a trademark smile if that didn't cost her amateur status.

But Wie is not looking forward to this week as a break from professional competition. "I just look at every competitor as a competitor," she said Saturday. "If I'm playing Tiger Woods, he's a competitor. If I'm playing my mom, she's a competitor. Everyone is a competitor, and I have to beat them."

Pressure is something that Wie has been almost-abnormally comfortable with since reporters from her home state of Hawaii came calling when she was 9. She was as nonplussed on the putting green Saturday as she was in the final group in the final round of the first LPGA major earlier this year.

Even on the last day of her tense U.S. Open experience -- after getting tongue-lashed by Danielle Ammaccapane, witnessing her father B.J. being threatened by Ammaccapane's father Ralph, and having her father retire as her caddie because of two etiquette breaches and a retraction of an alleged bump from Ammaccapane -- Wie hit every fairway and every green on her last nine holes of play. "It was amazing to me," said teacher and new caddie Gary Gilchrist. "That took such guts."

Guts? Big Wiesy shrugs. She just wants to play, and would rather leave the worrying to others. Gilchrist -- who will carry the bag this week but says he has spoken with Bobby Verwey (Gary Player's nephew) about eventually taking over as Wie's caddie -- hopes the phenom gets quickly acclimated to her newly retrofitted Titleist irons.

B.J. -- who lost $8 to his daughter in a side bet Saturday on whether she could hole out a chip -- wants Michelle to aim for 26 putts per round this week. And mother Bo simply wishes the second half of the summer away from Oahu is a little less exhausting than the first.

Meanwhile, Wie spent the Sunday before the opening round of stroke play trying out the front nine, posing for a magazine photo shoot, and playing with nine labradors owned by friends of her host family for the week. So while her parents and caddie fretted over who was handling her bag and the feel of the clubs in her bag, the Big Wiesy wondered aloud if it was against the rules to keep a puppy in her bag.

In Wie's World, it seems, pressure is for old folks.

Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.