- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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If Ernie Els offered you a golf lesson, would you take it?
Michelle Wie drew some nervous laughter from reporters Tuesday when she called Els out for shaky putting after a practice round at the Sony Open in Hawaii. But it was an Els putting tip that helped the 14-year-old get within one stroke of one of the greatest feats in golf history.
During their Tuesday practice round, Els sidled over to Wie and softly mentioned her tendency to rush her putter to the ball too quickly on long putts. Els suggested Wie think of her putter as a pendulum, meant to move back at the same speed as it moves forward.
The result: Wie, known for big drives much more than her suspect short game, drained two lag putts of more than 50 feet, birdied three of her last seven holes, took only 12 putts on her last 10 holes and missed becoming the youngest person to make the cut at a PGA Tour event by only one stroke.
The Els tip was only the most recent fix to Wie's game, which has undergone a major overhaul since last fall.
Wie's mechanics needed some serious tuning late last year. On the first tee at the Nine Bridges Classic in Korea last October, she blocked her drive into a bush and had to take a penalty stroke. That was the final pothole in a turbulent second half of 2003. After finishing in a tie for ninth at the Kraft Nabisco Championship (the first LPGA major) in March, then becoming the youngest golfer ever to win the Women's Amateur Public Links and the youngest to make the cut at the U.S. Women's Open in July, Wie lost her way. She lost unexpectedly in the third round of the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, fell in the first round of the U.S. Women's Amateur and then missed the cut at the LPGA's Jamie Farr Classic in August.
Wie would not admit it, but golf lost some of its fun after her infamous run-in with Danielle Ammaccapane at the U.S. Women's Open. Ammaccapane berated Wie for an etiquette gaffe in the scorer's tent after the first round, and two days later Ammaccapane's father allegedly confronted the Wies outside the clubhouse.
"Looking back to 2003," father B.J. said, "mentally both Michelle and I were affected by the incident. Her confidence was down. And the record shows her performance was worse. She struggled with her swing."
Enter superpro David Leadbetter, who spent two hours with Wie in Florida late in the year and immediately noticed the teen was bringing the shaft of her driver across the target line: a classic inside-out swing.
Leadbetter made a three-degree change in Wie's shoulder angle at the top of her backswing and taught Wie to narrow the pitch of her downswing. The difference showed immediately. Wie hit 11 of 14 fairways on the first day of the Sony Open. The following day, she fell back into her old swing, with her hips swiveling around too far, and she pushed all but eight drives out of the fairway.
Still, Els rescued Wie again. A Tuesday tip about playing out of deep rough -- he told her to ground the club two inches behind the ball -- helped Wie recover for a 2-under 68 Friday and a sparkling even-par 140 for the tournament.
Els' advice, and Michelle's comfort playing with the men, has convinced B.J. that his daughter needs more rounds with PGA Tour pros instead of fewer.
"Michelle has to play more with the best players on the best courses so she can learn better," he said over the phone on Saturday. "It will take time, but by playing more with LPGA and PGA players, she can learn quicker."
Does that mean the Wies will look for more PGA Tour exemptions in the year to come? B.J. says his daughter would accept another invite from the Sony Open, though he won't comment on whether he'll consider a few more rounds with the guys.
But if given the chance to take another lesson from Big Easy, don't expect Big Wiesy to pass.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.